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‘Sometimes plans change’ at UI

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 11, 2017, 10:40 p.m.

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben addressed concerns about his application to another university, his plans to cap new faculty and staff hires and his hefty research goals for the UI at his annual State of the University address Friday afternoon in the Pitman Center.

Staben began the address with a note of regret, calling his candidacy for a president’s position at the University of New Mexico a “distraction.”

“I don’t want to spend much time on that today, except to say that this university is the work of many people, not one,” Staben said. “Any distraction from our success and from your hard work, I regret.”

But Staben was forced to spend more time on the topic during a question and answer period for faculty and staff after Sarah Nelson, a professor of French, questioned Staben about statements the president made years ago in which he planned to stay with the UI for at least 10 years.

“I don’t think it’s really that valuable to speculate on that,” Staben said, adding focus should be on the university’s progress and its future.

Staben further addressed the concern with his longevity with the Daily News during a media questioning period after the address.

“Sometimes plans change,” Staben said. “You saw that with the University of New Mexico application. That plan might change. But that had been my plan, yes.”

The president said others should not speculate on the reason he applied to the institution and said he would not discuss whether he has applied for other jobs.

Whether he plans to stick around or not, Staben has set large goals for the UI’s coming years, frequently referring during his address to a strategic goal for the UI to ascend to Research 1 university status in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

This year, the UI spent a record $109.5 million in research, as reported to the National Science Foundation.

The spending marks a 7 percent, year-over-year increase, “at a time when many other universities are seeing declining expenditures in a tough federal funding environment,” Staben said during his address, to applause from the crowd.

That research spending is expected to continue, at least on a UI-led project to establish a major dairy research facility in southern Idaho.

Called the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE), the anticipated $45 million initiative received a shout-out from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter earlier this year when the governor recommended the state invest $10 million in the center. Staben expects to receive another $5 million in funding from the state this year.

Compared to other Research 1 universities – none in Idaho, and only the University of Washington and Washington State University in Washington, Staben said, the UI needs to increase its research spending by roughly 50 percent to achieve the prestigious classification. The UI is the only R2 university in either state. Idaho State, Boise State and Seattle Pacific universities are R3.

And that goal does not come without its challenges.

Staben said new faculty and staff hires will need to be capped between 5 and 10 percent.

Nelson asked Staben whether he would commit to capping new administrative growth at zero percent, to some applause from the crowd.

Explaining her question to the Daily News after the address, Nelson said resources have always been tight for hiring new faculty. At the same time, she said, faculty have also been told they need to teach more students, and it has been Nelson’s perception that money has been available for new administrative hires.

“Everything is colored by where you sit in the room,” Nelson told the Daily News. “And where I sit is the seat of a faculty member, in a department where we really need to be able to hire more faculty … . If we’re capping faculty and staff over the whole university to 10 percent, I’m thinking chances are good my department won’t get one of those new jobs.”

Staben said he has no intent to grow administration, adding he counts administrators as staff.

The president’s key tasks for the next year are to recruit, retain and educate students, cultivate a dynamic environment and execute the CAFE project as well as the new Idaho Arena.

“The excellence of our university is predicated on enrollment and research growth,” Staben said.

The president painted one scenario for the audience, in which the UI keeps with the status quo. In another scenario, the UI could pay competitive salaries but would have to contract staff and faculty by 20 percent.

Alternatively, Staben said he would like to increase research by 50 percent and continue to increase enrollment, fueled by the growth of net tuition revenue. In that scenario, he said, the university could afford market compensation as long as faculty and staff growth is limited.

“That is the road forward, I believe, to becoming a better, stronger institution, remaining Idaho’s premiere research university and joining the ranks of Carnegie R1 peers,” Staben said.