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UI Pushes To Keep Engineering Program Board To Decide Between UI Proposal And Micron Demand For Boise State

University of Idaho President Elisabeth Zinser told legislative budget writers Wednesday that her school is dramatically changing the way it views its responsibilities to accommodate “a new Idaho.”

“We have a new governor and new legislators,” Zinser told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “The new University of Idaho is prepared not only to do business differently and educate differently but to be available to serve everywhere it is needed in the new Idaho.”

In an obvious pitch for lawmakers to support UI’s continued operation of engineering education to meet rising demands in the Boise area, Zinser told the House-Senate panel that “proximity of service” was the new motto for the Moscow school.

“The University of Idaho is not a place,” she said. “It is a community for learning. … This is a very new university, eager to do new things in new locations.”

The state Board of Education will decide on Friday whether to reaffirm its original plan to expand the UI engineering program in Boise or to accede to a Micron Technology Inc. demand to create an independent engineering school run by Boise State.

Some educators see the Boise State proposal as a challenge to UI’s dominance in a number of academic fields, and if adopted the beginning of the erosion of that dominance.

The operational price tag for both approaches is about the same, although Zinser maintained the expanded UI program could achieve accreditation more quickly.

But financing the $12.4 million building for the engineering program is a different story. Micron has offered the state $6 million if it sets up the independent school at Boise State, and Boise State President Charles Ruch said he could raise the rest of the cash for construction from private donors. The Micron offer expires at the end of the month.

Zinser indicated the state would probably have to put up $6.4 million of the building cost. However, she later said she believed industry would get behind the expanded UI program once it was finalized and that could reduce the state’s financial requirement.

The University of Idaho has found itself at odds with Micron officials for the last several years after a computer chip developed by one of the university’s researchers was marketed to a Micron competitor without the Boise company getting the opportunity to bid on it.

In addition, Micron Chairman Steve Appleton is a Boise State alumnus and several Micron board members are major Boise State boosters, one giving the school $1 million last month to expand its football stadium.

Zinser indicated the issue was not whether there would be two independent engineering schools - in Moscow and Boise - but three since it would likely follow that the Idaho Falls engineering program would be given independence.

The alternative, she maintained, is the UI proposal that sets up “autonomous but integrated centers” for engineering in all three cities with the capability of extending services to other points, such as Coeur d’Alene. She said UI already is working with Idaho State University on a collaborative engineering program in Pocatello.

Zinser maintained each center would have enough autonomy to respond to local concerns, including those from supporters of the Boise State plan who insist there should be local control to meet southwestern Idaho’s growing demand for engineering education.

“It represents a new way of thinking, a new way of doing business in engineering education,” Zinser said.

She acknowledged that Micron’s $6 million offer was generous, but agreed with others that it would only be a drop in the bucket to the financial commitment the state is taking on in expanding engineering services in Boise.

Gov. Phil Batt has stayed out of the debate, saying only that he wants more engineering education available in southwestern Idaho. He has said the Micron gift cannot be rejected out of hand, but also that an independent consultant’s recommendation to expand the UI program should be considered but not be the final word.

Batt also said he did not expect the Legislature to intervene in the decision.