Talk about an opportunity knocking at Idaho higher education’s door.

For one thing, all of its leaders are on the same level playing field.

And for another, the institutions they represent face the same challenge.

In other words, their interests are linked in a way that calls for collaboration not seen since the 1980s when the presidents of Idaho’s institutions of higher learning went out on the road as a team.

Start with tremendous turnover all over the state.

Idaho State University President Kevin D. Satterlee has been on the job 14 months. He succeeded Arthur Vailas, who was at Pocatello for 12 years.

Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia L. Pemberton is second in seniority. She began her tenure at Lewiston 13 months ago. She replaced Tony Fernandez, who spent eight years in office.

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp took over five weeks ago. For 15 years, BSU knew no president other than Bob Kustra.

University of Idaho President Scott Green also began his tenure on July 1, succeeding Chuck Staben, who served five years.

None is particularly better known than the others. There is no dominant personality. Nor is one carrying any political baggage. It’s a clean slate.

Green and Satterlee know the state and its political network, but are learning their way around academia.

Satterlee’s a lawyer who came to ISU via a stint at the State Board of Education and BSU. Green, who was an active Vandal alum, was chief operating and financial officer at an international law firm.

Tromp and Pemberton have the academic credentials, but they wouldn’t know a Senate president pro tem from a budget director. Tromp came from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she was campus provost and executive vice chancellor. Pemberton was vice president for academic affairs at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo.

In other words, each of them has something the other needs.

And while each institution has its own set of issues, there’s an overwhelming common denominator: After years of trying, the state has not budged its “go on” rates. Despite the economy’s need for a skilled workforce, the percentage of high school graduates continuing their education is stuck at around 45 percent. At that rate, the State Board might as well abandon its goal of having 60 percent of young workers complete some form of post-high school training.

That leaves too many Idahoans working for lousy wages.

And it means Idaho businesses either turn elsewhere for the skilled employees they need to expand — or sputter along as best they can.

Culture and politics are feeding that.

During prosperous times, state leaders offer meager higher education budgets; in lean years, they treat college and university funding as their piggy bank. The result has been a steady rise in tuition rates, creating a sticker shock for first-generation students who are uncomfortable with taking on $25,000 or $30,000 in debt for an education.

What better way to break these social and political logjams than for all four presidents to work in tandem — from a variety of forums across the state.

Talk to students and parents about the virtues of getting a degree or a certificate.

Remind businesses what they have at stake.

Raise the profile of higher education funding with the voters.

And remind legislators how their appropriations drive tuition rates.

Speaking to the Lewiston Tribune on Monday, Green argued that getting any Idaho student into any Idaho school — whether it was his university or a community college — was a win for the state.

Likewise, the institutions stand to gain more from joint research programs, such as the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in eastern Idaho.

The incentives for collaboration are abundant in an unprecedented way.

All that’s required is a higher education leadership willing to act. — M.T.

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