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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As northwest university presidential housing goes, University of Idaho unusual with two homes

By Kyle Pfannenstiel For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – Among the perks that most university presidents earn is the free use of a stately home.

The University of Idaho is in the unusual position of owning two presidential residences. One is a $2 million modern, on-campus home where UI President Scott Green lives. The other, a more modest home, is rented to former UI President Chuck Staben.

UI finds itself with two homes during a tense time for the university’s budget. Some employees and students, for instance, have criticized proposals from administrators to outsource campus services to deal with a burgeoning $22 million deficit.

In determining the rate at which to rent the off-campus home to Staben, UI broke best practice, according to two public policy professors who have studied compensation for college presidents. UI spokeswoman Jodi Walker declined to comment on UI’s process to determine Staben’s rent or how the university will determine values for renting or selling properties in the future.

Most other four-year universities in Washington and Idaho provide homes for their presidents, The Spokesman-Review found in a review of more than a dozen universities in Washington and Idaho. That’s in line with national trends, according to a study by George Mason University professors that found 74% of public colleges provide a house for their presidents, while 17% give them a stipend.

Only one university in the review, Boise State University, provides its president with a housing stipend, which is $5,000 each month. One other university, Gonzaga University, said it provided no housing compensation, though the salary of its president was about $618,000 in 2018, according to a ProPublica database of IRS filings for nonprofits.

Just before Staben became president in 2014, UI approved plans to demolish the existing president’s house, which was built in 1966, and construct a new one on the same foundation. Administrators said a new house was needed in part because the previous home’s design made it too cramped to comfortably entertain.

The project to rebuild the campus house wasn’t finished until this spring, months before Staben’s contract as president ended June 15. To address the lack of presidential housing, a commonly provided amenity, the university first paid Staben a stipend and later purchased the off-campus house after the then-owner spiked rent by 60% in summer 2015 because they wanted to sell the property. Months later, UI bought the house for $478,000.

The day before Staben’s contract as president ended in June, he signed a yearlong lease for the home.

Staben is scheduled to teach at the university in the spring, but he recently became a finalist for the University of North Dakota presidency.

Walker said the university couldn’t “move to sell” the extra presidential house while Staben lived there as UI president. But she said the university is considering selling the home after Staben’s lease ends.

“We have time to decide what’s best for the university and move down that route,” Walker said. She said if Staben “reaches out with a resignation or desire to do something different, we will address it at that time.”

The two public policy professors at George Mason University who authored the study on university president compensation said in an interview that they haven’t heard of any instances of universities purchasing houses for presidents to use while in office and renting it to them afterward.

They also said UI didn’t use best practice in the process it went through to determine the property’s market value to rent to Staben. Agencies should get three estimates from independent evaluators, such as property managers and real estate agents, and average those evaluations to find the most accurate value, said James Finkelstein and Judith Wilde, the George Mason professors. This process is important, they said, because it ensures property owners get the most accurate valuations.

UI worked with only one person, a Moscow property manager who said he manages about 1,300 properties, to determine the market rate rent of $3,000 for the property. That rent doesn’t seem out of line for a near half-million-dollar home in Moscow, but Finkelstein and Wilde said the process is still important.

Finkelstein said “there’s no way to know” what the most accurate market value is if an agency only has one example. Wilde said the rent “doesn’t have to match perfectly” with existing rents for similar properties, “but it has to be reasonably comparable.”

Staben’s contract as president allowed him to become a tenured professor when his presidency ended, with the stipulation that he be paid at least as much as the highest-paid full professor in the College of Science. His salary for teaching next year will be roughly $153,000. He will earn about $94,000 from the time he left the presidency in June until the end of the year while on paid leave.

Green, the new president, does not have the contractual provision that would allow him to become a tenured professor once he is no longer president.

Staben said the university’s decision to rent him the off-campus house he lived in as president was a “fairly easy way for us to deal with the real estate situation.” Staben said his rental of the house is a “mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Staben said if he is selected as UND president, “he would be fine” with starting Jan. 1, which he said was the original start date advertised for the position. In that case, he said he would submit his resignation to teach at UI in the spring. He could exercise a provision in the lease that allows him or the university to terminate the rental agreement by providing two months’ advance notice.

“If I were employed elsewhere, I would work with the university within the terms of the lease to move as expeditiously as possible,” he said.

The decision of who will be UND’s next president likely will be made on Dec. 3. The contract and start date of the president is negotiable, said UND president search firm spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius.