Are Vailas’ policies damaging ISU?
By Habib Sadid
When Dr. Arthur Vailas became the president of Idaho State University in July 2006, he announced, with little or no comprehension of its infrastructure, his intention of making ISU the “MIT of the West.”
Vailas wants ISU to be a research institution like Utah State University, bringing in $150 million in research funds annually. Furthermore, he wants that to happen immediately. Vailas fails to note that USU is a land grant university enjoying substantial federal earmarks. With that significant advantage, it took USU over 30 years to achieve its current research success.
The idea of increasing research funding at ISU is not new. The challenge is to achieve this goal with very limited resources and still maintain ISU’s existing strengths.
ISU is a small, regional institution with a reputation for excellent teaching. This is primarily because most of the undergraduate courses are instructed by experienced professors. ISU has a history of successfully preparing graduates for post-graduate education and productive careers. ISU alumni attend some of the most prestigious graduate schools in the U.S., and their educations compare favorably with graduates from the highest ranked universities.
At the Sept. 30 ISU General Assembly, Vailas proposed that ISU begin relying on graduate students to instruct undergraduate courses. This would free faculty to spend their time on research and is more “cost effective.” As a taxpayer and a parent, do you want the responsibility for your children’s education to be in the hands of other students who have completed a few more semesters of study?
Last year, the ISU faculty raises were based entirely on research performance. Nominally, faculty members are expected to spend 60 percent of their time on teaching with the remainder divided between research and service activities. How can the administration ignore 60 percent of the faculty’s responsibility and a university’s very reason for existence? I believe that this is a breach of contract between ISU and its faculty, not to mention a breach of public trust. Vailas pays only lip-service to education. If that is not the case, why do his deans make statements like: “It doesn’t matter if you are the best teacher in the world, research is our priority.”
Normally, a leader with a vision for change presents a comprehensive and realistic road map. Vailas’ plan for the transformation of ISU into a research university is for faculty to “work nights and weekends.” Recently, Vailas publicly repeated this “plan” stating that faculty have “24 hours a day” and “seven days a week” to achieve his goal. For Vailas, the burden of extra work is light, as long as someone else is doing it.
ISU faculty members already work, on average, more than 50 hours a week, with teaching loads unheard of at research institutions. Many dedicate their summers to unpaid scholarship. Professors have families, children and lives. They are dedicated professionals, but shouldn’t be expected to abandon their other responsibilities to pad Vailas’ resume. Should Vailas enforce his will on the faculty, students will be neglected, and standards will fall.
Recently, ISU has lost a number of fine faculty and administrators. Senior faculty are being intimidated, forced out or pushed aside. Dedicated, hard-working and veteran professors are increasingly “hoping to hold on until retirement.” Abuse of administrative power continues under the Vailas administration. Retaliation against those who have raised their voices is the rule.
Junior faculty are under pressure to bring in research funding otherwise they will be fired. These faculty, who are literally investing 70-80 hours a week in their careers, hear these unrealistic expectations and are looking for the door. They will be difficult to replace; qualified faculty will be reluctant to come to a university known for heavy workloads, questionable administrators, threadbare infrastructure and salaries below the national average.
Recently, the Nuclear Engineering Department lost four professors, leaving only two administrators who teach part-time. Three of the lost faculty were “recent hires.” The fourth was a 14-year veteran who held the department together through the hard times with his 80-hour work weeks. This gentleman took a better paying position with a 40-hour work week.
Many professors are choosing to leave ISU because they realize there is no future here under Vailas’ “blood from turnips” policies.
Vailas speaks of “honesty, transparency and accountability” without holding administrators accountable for their actions and performance. Hiring unqualified faculty for administrative positions, Vailas continues shuffling his fishing and hunting buddies from one administrative position to another.
If Vailas wishes to change the direction of ISU, I recommend that he and his administrative underlings begin fundraising to improve research facilities and reduce faculty teaching loads. With additional resources, ISU can improve its research without affecting instructional quality. Then ISU might hire qualified, post-doctoral students to bring new ideas, help with teaching and write research proposals for funding. ISU cannot become a research institution overnight, but can make progress toward that goal and still be true to its educational mission.
Vailas seems hell-bent on transforming ISU into a research university regardless of the cost to students and taxpayers. Since it is not feasible to achieve this goal immediately, it appears to me that Vailas is trying to enhance his resume and use ISU as a stepping stone to a more prestigious university. I strongly believe that Vailas’ policies are damaging ISU by trading quality in higher education for the promise of fast money.
Habib Sadid has been a professor of engineering at Idaho State University for 21 years. He has received numerous accolades including Distinguished Master Teacher and Distinguished Public Service awards from Idaho State University and Excellence in Engineering Education from Idaho professional engineers.