It’s time for a change at ISU

By Martin Hackworth

It’s time for a change at Idaho State University. Despite rosy claims of a bustling enterprise in perfect shape ISU is anything but. Unless substantive changes in leadership occur at Idaho State very soon I fear that it will become even more of a shell of an actual university than it already is. All we have to do to for ISU to continue its decline from a dignified institution of higher learning to a glorified community college is nothing. I fear that we are already watching the implosion and collapse of ISU in real time.

I want to make something perfectly clear – there is plenty of blame for ISU’s current problems to go around. ISU has never had the advocacy and support from the State Board of Education that Boise State University and University of Idaho seem to enjoy. The current ISU administration inherited a way less than ideal situation from its predecessor. As little respect as I have come to have for the current administration I have even less for those who came before them. It’s been a long road to decline.

ISU was an odd place the entire two plus decades I was there. Both administrations under which I served were quite successful in pitting faculty against each other by making everything a zero sum gain. In order for Department A to win, Department B had to lose. That’s not exactly a setup that promotes collegiality. In order to survive good people had to go after each other.

The problem with a one-size fits all model of productivity is you can’t have a university without scholarship in a variety of fields. Science and engineering may bring in the lion’s share of resources but you still need an English department. Despite pablum to the contrary, units unable to generate external funds were always treated as children of lesser gods. Faculty and staff from various units were rarely on the same page at ISU — and that was no accident.

Departments who were successful in attracting external funds were rewarded by having those funds taken from them. I’m actually OK with some of this if the purpose of this is to fund that English department or improve student services, but not if the funds are going to fatten administrative coffers, acquire presidential estates and fund research centers that produce nothing. The research faculty at ISU have largely voted with their feet on this issue. There are amazingly still a few good hands left but that number is growing smaller by the day.

ISU always struck me as an institution akin to a countryside at night. There are little points of light all over but never enough in one place to do much good in terms of illumination. There is some real talent at ISU (still), just not enough to turn the tide in the institution’s favor. I don’t know how some of the very dedicated folks there have managed to put up with so much BS for so long. Motivation to provide more than the minimum amount of effort necessary to kick the can down the road from semester to semester is low. That’s a total and abject failure of leadership.

I number among my close friends from ISU several former deans and administrators. I watched some of these individuals get completely crushed by leaders that they’d served faithfully and once held in esteem. All were replaced by people who were not smarter than them or any better at their jobs, merely more willing to carry out, without much inconvenient thought, any silly, stupid missive ginned up by ISU President Art Vailas or his top lieutenants.

I have never met a single former ISU official who served under the current administration who has much good to say about their time there. And why should they? It seems that Vailas has never encountered a problem of his own making. Everything, it seems, is the fault of someone else — usually the person who just left. The parade of people thrown under the bus by this administration is enough to actually build a respectable institution.

I was fortunate enough to be able to leave ISU under my own terms. I’ve moved on to a new career and I’m quite happy. I do miss the students and I’d have been perfectly happy to teach a few night classes just to keep that connection. Most of the conflicts over research and Faculty Senate issues that have dominated discussion about ISU did not directly affect me because I was a lecturer with no research responsibilities and did not have any actual representation in the Faculty Senate. It is true that I was (and am still) offended by scientific research institutes that don’t do any science. I was also very much opposed to providing a lackluster and undeserving leader a better free house than the one that he already does not put to good use. But those were sideshows. I could have put up with all of the above for a few more years before retiring.

This administration lost me for good when they began populating my classes with miserable international students for the sole purpose of treating them like ATMs – then completely denying that any problems with this arrangement existed. The situation is clearly running off what few remaining good local students that ISU has managed to attract. Southeast Idaho students, like their professors before them, have been voting with their feet.

It’s time for Arthur Vailas to go – either of his own accord or not. If the SBOE were looking for individuals to deliberately burn down a modern American university they could not have done better than Vailas and his top lieutenants. Don’t look to the SBOE or governor for help either, this is going to be on this community.

It’s time we anted up. Lots of good folks at ISU have publicly spoken truth to power. Now it’s your turn to listen and act.

On my way out the door last summer someone told me that I was making a mistake. “Your son will be able to go to school here free if you stay,” the individual said. My last words as a member of the ISU community were “You are joking, right?”

Award-winning Journal columnist Martin Hackworth was a senior lecturer in physics at Idaho State University for 23 years.