Ending months of speculation and a drive not to renew her contract, University of Idaho President Elisabeth Zinser announced Thursday she is leaving to become chancellor of the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
The move closes a rough-and-tumble chapter at the state’s land grant university.
In her nearly six years as president, Zinser acquired a two-pronged reputation as a progressive agent of change and a brusque and meddling micromanager. She also saw the school itself come under siege from southern Idaho forces who wanted a greater share of engineering programs at Boise State University.
On Thursday, Zinser attributed the controversy surrounding her to the “spotlight” cast on the state’s main university. She denied her job search was related to a petition drive asking the state Board of Education not to renew her contract this June.
She said moving on is part of a “natural progression” in her career. “I really feel very strongly about playing a role in improving and advancing public higher education in this country,” she said Thursday afternoon. “If I can do that at two or three places in my career, because I’m that far away from retirement at this point, that’s great.”
Zinser, who now earns $130,000 a year, will receive a $142,500 salary and another $21,000 in retirement benefits at Kentucky. The university is one of 59 Class I research institutions ranked by the Carnegie Foundation, with more than 24,000 students and an annual budget of more than $300 million.
UI has about 11,000 students and an annual budget of $200 million.
Robert Lawson, assistant to Kentucky President Charles T. Wethington Jr., said school officials were struck by Zinser’s enthusiasm, intelligence and experience.
“There’s not anything in this job that will be new to her,” Lawson said. “She’ll be running as soon as she gets here.”
Pending approval by the Kentucky board of trustees at its June 13 meeting, Zinser will start July 15.
Zinser, 55, was an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at UK in the mid-‘70s and a chancellor candidate before coming to UI. She also had a brief moment on the national stage when the protests of students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only university for the deaf, forced her to resign after two days as president in 1988.
While West Virginia University last week sent a school official to the Palouse to conduct a background check on Zinser, one of two finalists for its presidency, Kentucky sent no one and relied on a consulting firm to screen candidates, Lawson said.
The petition drive against her, he said, was not a factor.
“President Zinser shared all that information with us,” he said. “We saw all the newspaper clippings … We did this with an awareness of all that. It obviously was not regarded as significant enough to foreclose the consideration of President Zinser for the position.”
More than 1,000 people signed the petition against Zinser, claiming she is unresponsive, a poor communicator and has “repeatedly equivocated on issues of university development, academics and athletics.”
Petition organizers were particularly angry over her delays in deciding to move the school’s athletic program from the Big Sky to the larger Big West conference. They also claimed she short-shrifted the state’s engineering needs by setting up a a joint UI-Boise State University program they called mere “tokenism.”
Such claims were moot Thursday.
“All’s well that ends well,” said Mack Redford, a UI alumnus and petition drive organizer, “and I think everyone, including Dr. Zinser, will feel a great deal of relief.”
With Zinser’s future uncertain in recent months, “everybody’s glad to know what the decision is,” said Larry Branen, former UI agriculture dean and now head of the faculty council.
At the same time, he said, “there’s still a concern about the vulnerability of the university in the interim.”
Curtis Eaton, president of the Board of Education, said Zinser’s departure leaves the board with “ambivalent feelings” of happiness for her and loss for the university. “We know she’s been a real dedicated proponent of the University of Idaho,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll find somebody with the same high energy level and dedication.”
At its May 24 meeting, the board will probably discuss a search for Zinser’s successor, which could take six months or longer, he said. Meanwhile, the board will try to appoint an interim president “as soon as possible.”
Eaton refused to say whether that might be former UI Provost Tom Bell, whose name is being circulated as a temporary replacement.