In a clumsy, method-to-madness way, the State Board of Education spiced up what could have been a dull discussion about mission statements.
Just remove the word “flagship” from the University of Idaho’s mission statement, and it’s like football season all over again.
Vandal haters went online to talk smack and share a few virtual fist bumps. Vandal faithful, stunned and blindsided, looked around for a referee to boo.
A role played happily by the State Board, which started rewording the universities’ mission statements Wednesday, one day before pointing a torpedo at the U of I’s flagship. The board’s idea was to remove wording that gives one university preeminence over the others — to level the proverbial playing field.
So the State Board loves all its children equally. That’s nice. I’m sure that’s a sentiment shared by a Legislature and a governor that has shown its love for higher education by whacking 26.4 percent off the universities’ general fund budget over three years. All of the state’s institutions of higher learning, flagship or otherwise, have been taking on water.
Which makes the flagship fight a particularly pointless distraction. The State Board’s stated goal — encouraging universities to cooperate — is perfectly reasonable, but lean budgets are already forcing the universities to work together and avoid duplication. Not coincidentally, Gov. Butch Otter’s signature higher education initiative for 2012 is a high-tech university research collaboration.
But even if their intentions were good, State Board members should have been politically savvy enough to see they were starting a fight. The abrupt redlining of “flagship” reinforces all the old rivalries that divide Idaho’s institutions, outside the athletic arena. It forced, for example, the normally even-keeled U of I President Duane Nellis to go to the school’s Facebook page and play to the crowd in the grandstands. “This edit does not change who we are or how we will operate going forward. We are THE University of Idaho.”
The popular read from Thursday is that it shows that Boise State University is gaining political clout, squarely at the U of I’s expense. Never mind that the two schools serve different niches in the higher education market, and provide a very different campus experience to their students. The big problem is that the State Board chose to rekindle an old turf fight, when it does neither institution a bit of good.