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UI boosters want Nellis for top job

BOISE — Former U.S. Sen. Steve Symms has asked Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to change state policy to allow private money to be used to bolster the salaries of university presidents.

The Republican lawmaker who represented Idaho in the 1980s and early 1990s said he urged Otter to make the change, which could help the University of Idaho land Kansas State University Provost Duane Nellis as its next president.

Nellis last month turned down the job after Idaho’s Board of Education rejected his salary request. It’s unclear how much money separates the two sides.

“There’s a problem when the guy wants the job and the board wants to hire him and pay is the issue,” said Symms, who played football for the Vandals in the late 1950s.

In March, Nellis said he had sought less money at Idaho than what he and his wife, a Kansas State employee, make together at that school, where they earn a combined base salary of $370,354 a year.

Nellis is paid a yearly base of $272,116 as provost and his wife, Ruthie, makes $98,238 working in institutional advancement.

Education board spokesman Mark Browning said that under a policy approved by the board, the pay of presidents at five of Idaho’s state-owned colleges and universities is restricted to public money.

The board could change that policy. Of the eight education board members, seven are appointed by Otter.

“The governor has been in communication with the (board) relative to these issues,” spokesman Jon Hanian told the Idaho Statesman. “The governor is still gathering information and beyond that isn’t commenting about the prospects of any specific candidate.”

The current policy limiting president pay applies to the University of Idaho, Boise State University, Idaho State University, Lewis-Clark State College, and the two-year Eastern Idaho Technical College, Browning said.

“They needed to have the clarity to report to one boss, and that’s the state Board of Education,” he said.

The state’s three community colleges have their own board of trustees that sets pay policies, Browning said. Those two-year schools are owned by the taxpayers of their community college districts.

Browning said he couldn’t comment about the possibility of the state board offering Nellis more money at a time when the state is cutting back due to the faltering economy.

University of Idaho boosters who back Nellis arranged for Symms to discuss the policy change with Otter last week.

Supporters of the 120-year-old school say Nellis is a good fit for the job because of his experience at a land grant school and his Northwest connections.

Since 2004, the university has had four temporary or permanent presidents. In its current search for a new president, three of the five finalists have withdrawn.

Ham Shirvani, president of California State University Stanislaus, withdrew in February, citing support at home and money. He makes $320,000 at his current job and said the job at Idaho paid in the “early 300s.” After hearing that, he withdrew.

“If you want to move from one place to another, you’ve got to have something to make it worth your while,” Shirvani said Tuesday. “Forgive me for being so blunt.”

Garrett Holbrook, UI student body president, said the school needs a president.

“We have to put up if we want a president capable of moving us forward,” Holbrook said. “The notion that we’re going to get one for a bargain is a little ridiculous.”