| 03.24.2018

University expects ‘seamless transition’


Although President M. Duane Nellis will leave the University of Idaho in June, business is set to continue as usual.The university is bigger than one person, UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Interim Dean John Foltz said.
“While the president is kind of the face of the university, if you will, it is all the other people as well — faculty, staff and students,” Foltz said. “So just because the president is leaving does not mean you’re not going to class anymore, and that we’re not conducting research, or that we’re not serving the state.”
The Idaho State Board of Education appointed UI College of Law Dean Don Burnett as interim president Wednesday.
While he didn’t see the SBOE’s decision coming, School of Journalism and Mass Media Director Kenton Bird said in hindsight, he wasn’t surprised.
“I know they wanted somebody who was familiar with the university and who had some continuity with President Nellis and somebody who had some knowledge of the state,” Bird said. “And certainly Dean Burnett meets all three of those criteria.”
Burnett’s mother, father and wife all went to UI. Burnett didn’t personally obtain any degrees at UI, but Bird said he is still familiar with the history, traditions and character of the university.
Burnett’s family is originally from Wallace, Idaho, and he served on the Idaho Court of Appeals, among several other law positions, all of which contribute to his deep Idaho roots, Bird said. said.
Burnett is UI’s longest-serving dean, at almost 11 years, which Bird said makes him more than qualified for the interim president position.
“He has been exposed to five different presidents that he served under, so he’s been exposed to a variety of leadership styles,” Bird said. “He certainly knows how the university functions — the relationship between president, vice president, deans, faculty, staff and students.”
ASUI President Hannah Davis said she is sad to see Nellis go, but she is also excited to work with Burnett because his commitment to students is clear. Davis said Burnett was one of the first deans to reach out to her after she was elected ASUI president.
“He set up a meeting with me, between ASUI and the State Bar Association, so I know he cares a lot about the students and wants to make sure students are heard,” Davis said. “He also fought very hard to get the second- and third-year law program down in Boise.”
Davis said Burnett has what it takes to approach the SBOE and ask for what UI, and Idaho higher education in general, needs.
College of Business and Economics Dean Mario Reyes said he has confidence in a seamless transition between Nellis and Burnett.
“He’s been here for many years,” Reyes said. “He understands the challenges and issues we face in the university and the opportunities we face as well.”
A transitional challenge might lie in maintaining the forward momentum of Nellis’ initiatives — not only during the summer, but during Burnett’s interim presidency and into the permanent presidency, Bird said.
Those initiatives include the “2020 task force,” committed to increasing enrollment and funded research, as well as the two task forces related to student safety and conduct — one that deals with the relationship between UI and its Greek life, and the other centered on the prevention of substance abuse, Bird said.
Reyes said another of Nellis’ accomplishments is the president’s diversity council he implemented upon his arrival at UI to provide him with advice about how to increase diversity across campus.
“That diverse student body now enriches our campus community,” Reyes said.
Among Nellis’ initiatives is the “event center task force,” which will explore the possibility of a basketball arena on the north end of the Kibbie Dome, Bird said.
Bird said these task forces are in the works, and will probably produce a series of reports by May.
“So President Nellis will have to decide how to deal with them and then Interim President Burnett will have to figure out how to implement them,” Bird said. “I expect that President Nellis won’t have much time to relax before he leaves, and that Dean Burnett is going to have to be able to hit the ground running by the first of June to determine which of the recommendations to implement, and in which order.”
Dean of Students Bruce Pitman said he’s pleased with the state board’s choice because Burnett is articulate, has excellent judgment and has already formed crucial relationships with several board members.
Reyes said he’s also sad to see Nellis go, but has admired Burnett’s leadership style since they served together on a search committee for the provost.
“That’s when I first got to know him well, and ever since that time, my admiration of his leadership style has grown,” Reyes said. “The last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a fellow dean, and now I have the privilege of working with him as our interim president.”
Britt Kiser can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu

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