The first time I met University of Idaho President Chuck Staben, he was wearing workout pants and what looked like an old sweatshirt.
It was a Sunday – just a day after Staben officially began his tenure as the university”s 18th president.
At the time, I was waiting to meet a videographer outside of the Administration Auditorium for a story. I got there early and was checking my phone when I heard footsteps down the halls and saw a silhouette by the door.
On the day after he took office, Staben appeared to be taking a stroll in the dark and quiet Administration Building, taking in the university he had just inherited.
He introduced himself and asked if I wanted any tea. I regretfully declined. It was a surprising and unexpected interaction, to say the least.
Little did I know, it would be the first of many interactions, as I would spend the next year and a half following and reporting on his administration.
Staben and his new cast of administrators face a daunting challenge. They hope to increase UI”s enrollment while at the same time creating a college-going culture in a state that regularly ranks near the bottom in college go-on rates.
In fact, Idaho ranked last in the nation in college go-on rates, according to a 2010 study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
One thing is for sure, if Staben can solve UI”s enrollment problems, he will become a saint to this university.
There seems to be small but promising signs that UI enrollment will be headed in the right direction soon. Although the university saw a dip in overall enrollment for a third consecutive year, enrollment of in-state undergraduate freshmen went up 1.2 percent in fall 2015. It might be small, but the numbers show growth in a critical demographic for the university.
No, enrollment will not spike in one school year. The growth will be gradual and Staben will need to manage expectations as the university continues forward.
But for now, I”m optimistic. After large changes at the upper administration level, UI now has the new personnel to tackle enrollment.
The direct admission policy implemented by the State Board of Education at Staben”s urging this year should have a positive effect on next year”s numbers. The VandaLink programs set up at multiple community colleges in Idaho should also help to increase transfer student enrollment.
Administrators are also looking to provide more money for student scholarships, as well as a different way of packaging scholarships.
Make no mistake, enrollment will define Staben”s tenure at UI.
Increasing enrollment is critical. Without it, the university will continue to fall further behind peer institutions and shrink its regional influence.
Without it, talented and hard-working faculty and staff will continue to leave UI to take higher-paying positions at intuitions that have the funds to pay them what they are worth. Without it, the university will have no choice but to continue to pay faculty and staff below market value.
As many on campus already know, low salaries make it that much harder to find qualified candidates for open positions.
Perhaps Staben”s tenure will become another one of UI”s many short-lived presidencies.
Perhaps Staben will solve the enrollment problem and in doing so help UI too.
I wish all the best to Staben and the new crew of administrators. They seem to have the enthusiasm and experience to solve UI”s enrollment problems.
Ryan Tarinelli can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ryantarinelli