Chuck Staben has returned to his roots as a university professor, but it’s not where he wants to finish his career in higher education.
Staben, who served as president of the University of Idaho from 2014-19 before the State Board of Education opted not to renew his contract, took a semester off and recently started teaching again as a professor of biological sciences at UI.
He is enjoying spending time with students, but ultimately he believes he can do more good at the helm of a public university.
“I am continuing to look for other opportunities as a president or perhaps other opportunities,” Staben said. “In fact, I was a ... finalist for the job recently at the University of North Dakota.”
Craig Clohessy: What are you teaching this semester and how has the transition been from the president’s office back to the classroom?
Chuck Staben: I’m teaching Biochemistry 2, which is Biology 454, and it’s cross-listed as a graduate course, 554 — primarily a senior undergraduate course. I’m also doing a little bit of teaching in education leadership.
The transition has been fine. I had a one-semester leave that allowed me to prepare as well as do a few other things during that time, and I enjoy being back in the classroom. I like the contact with students. I liked contact with students when I served as president as well.
CC: Do students and faculty treat you any differently now from when you were president?
CS: I have a different role, so in that respect students and faculty and others treat me somewhat differently. Generally, in a personal sense, no, I don’t think they treat me differently. And I enjoy interacting with colleagues that I knew when I was president and, as I said, I enjoy interacting with students.
CC: In addition to teaching, are you doing any research work?
CS: I’m not doing any sort of laboratory research. I participated on a report for the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities on what their member universities — universities like the University of Idaho — are doing with respect to the opioid crisis and what opportunities they might have to do additional work on the opioid crisis. So more public impact research than what I would call traditional biological research.
CC: You continue to search out professional advancements. What are you looking for? What type of opportunities would appeal to you?
CS: What I’m looking for is primarily the opportunity to contribute in higher education, and I have a particular love for public higher education, for ensuring that students of all types and backgrounds, socioeconomic status, etc., can access public higher education. I think I have more to contribute to higher education and can do more as a president than I can as a professor, although I know that I can also contribute in the classroom.
CC: What did you learn during your time as president — either success or failure — that you think will help you in your next position?
CS: If I’m fortunate enough to get another presidency, I think one of the things that became very clear to me as I served as (UI) president is just how important communication and consistency in communication are to being successful as a president. And I think that I would put even more emphasis ... on ensuring student success. That students can come to the university and access an education, but that they also will progress from freshman to sophomore to senior and on to a great career. And I think that we have to work very conscientiously on ensuring that sort of success.
CC: UI is facing serious budget challenges with a $22 million deficit, a freeze on tuition and declining state support. Do you feel fortunate not to have to be making those tough decisions that will be coming, or do you actually miss being part of finding those solutions?
CS: I think you phrased it well. I miss being part of finding those solutions. I’ve never shied from tough decisions. I feel I am imaginative and capable and would be happy to be still in charge and facing these issues.
CC: Does the current president, Scott Green, seek out your advice?
CS: I met Scott when he was a member of the U of I Foundation Board early in my presidency, around 2015. And he and I had a number of conversations leading up to the time that he became president, and we’ve had a few conversations afterwards, but at this point we don’t confer frequently. I’m sure that he has assembled his leadership team and has his initiative and, you know, has the reins at this point and wants to keep moving the university forward.
CC: In your free time you love marbling paper. Explain what that is.
CS: Marbling is an old process for making unique patterns on things like paper or fabric. Basically what you do is ... take a big flat tray, and you put a viscus sort of gelatinous solution in it and you put paints on. ... You often draw through these with a stylus or with combs or other ways. But you put a unique pattern on the top of this bath, and then you take a piece of paper and you lift the pattern off the bath. It’s a one-time-only printing process. It makes these beautiful patterns of colors.
Where you might have encountered it is if you have old books. The front and end papers were typically marbled papers. That’s what it’s used for in bookbinding. ... I think it was first devised in the 1300s in Turkey actually.
CC: How did you come to be interested in this process?
CS: I love old books. I’ve always loved to be in a library and looking at the old books and journals that one has there. I spent a lot of time in libraries, especially as a young scientist, and I always wondered how these unique and beautiful patterns were made.
I read some craft books about how you did it. It seemed really hard and I never did it, and then one Christmas I decided I’m going to investigate this more closely — it was about 10 years ago.
I looked around on the internet, and I found some beautiful marbling examples and this guy who sold marbling supplies and the kits. Funny enough, you couldn’t order them on the internet. ... There was a phone number, so I called him up. Turns out it’s a guy who is president of the American Marbling Association, and he wants to talk to everyone he sells a kit to, and that’s why you can’t find them over the internet.
The kids and I did it, and it turns out it’s terrifically easy to make something that is unique and beautiful. I’m kind of a klutzy nonartistic guy, and so I thought, “Wow, I mean it’s amazing that this process works so incredibly easily and well.” To really control it and be a master of the process is a little different, but to make something that is cooler than you ever thought you could make is remarkably easy.
CC: You did this as a team-building exercise with your cabinet when you were president.
CS: I think it was the most popular cabinet meeting, hands down. I think you could call almost any member of the cabinet and ask them that question, and that’s probably the one cabinet meeting they would remember.
CC: Anything else you’d like to add?
CS: I have a deep love of higher education. I love students — I like to see them succeed. I’m enjoying teaching my biochemistry class. Biochemistry has changed quite a bit since the last time I taught it in 1982. I’ve taught related courses, but it has been intellectually refreshing to think about what is it that today’s student needs to know about biochemistry as opposed to how has biochemistry traditionally been taught.
Clohessy is managing editor of the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2251.
Title/occupation: Professor of biological sciences; former president at the University of Idaho.
Family: Married to Mary Beth Staben, MD, a hospitalist practicing at St. Luke’s, Boise; sons Mac Staben, an anesthesiology resident at University of Pennsylvania, and Cal Staben, emergency medicine resident, University of Louisville, who is married to Sarah Staben; daughter Rae is a medical student at Vanderbilt University.
Education: Grew up in Waukegan, Ill., and attended grade schools and public high school there; Bachelor of Science in biochemistry, University of Illinois in 1978; Ph.D. in biochemistry, University of California, Berkeley, 1984; postdoctoral research at Chiron Corp., 1985-86, on HIV virus sequence variation and at Stanford University, 1987-89, on fungal mating type genes.
Work history: Assistant professor, associate professor, professor of biology at University of Kentucky, 1989-2008; also served as chairman of the School of Biological Sciences, 2000-04, associate vice president for research, 2004-08, and as acting vice president for research, 2006-07; provost, University of South Dakota, 2008-14; president, University of Idaho, 2014-19; professor of biological sciences, UI, 2019-present.
Hobbies/interest: Family, skiing, biking, hiking, fitness, travel, bridge.
Hidden talents: “I learned to marble paper and taught a couple of sessions on marbling for an arts class at the University of South Dakota and have used marbling as a group activity for the University of Idaho cabinet. I use the paper that I marble for bookbinding, gift wrapping, and for handmade notecards for our family and as special thank-you notes.