With the budget ax looming over state education funding, Idaho State University President Art Vailas warns that holdbacks imperil the very tools lawmakers are hoping will usher in economic recovery.
“We are in the knowledge business … and we have a responsibility to share that knowledge with business,” he said. “No other engine exists in this country with the sum total impact of universities on the growth of our economy; but if you take away the tools to deploy that knowledge, then what is the economic outlook of that region? I don’t think it’s very good.”
Vailas was in Boise on Jan. 29 to meet with reporters and huddle with university officials as the Idaho Legislature contemplates another round of budget reductions for public and higher education.
He said the current political debate surrounding education cuts is about determining “what is the nominal level of support” needed from state government to maintain the education system. Further reductions, no matter how modest, will further hamper the university’s ability to function, he added.
“We are all doing more with less and there’s a lot of angst about the whole thing,” he said, adding that ISU has held off on equipment purchases, facilities upgrades and hiring over the past two-and-a-half years. “That can’t go on forever.”
While Vailas recognized that it’s likely a barebones budget will go on for at least the next year, in the meantime he ISU and other state universities are looking for ways to pool their resources and seeking out partnerships to stretch dollars.
Some examples of that include consolidation of some programs, co-location with high schools, team teaching and increased distance learning through online classes. Some programs have been reduced or cut all together due to lagging enrollment, but Vailas said the university’s energy, health care and environmental offerings are still its core strengths.
“ISU has built an integrated thematic model [on those areas] and the sustainability of these programs will be better,” he said. “Students are really shopping around, and we offer value in these fields.”
Vailas made particular note of the ISU-Meridian Health Sciences Center, which opened in late-summer 2009. The center houses a more than 20 graduate and undergraduate courses with an enrollment of more than 700 students.
ISU’s energy programs – offered through its Energy Systems Technology and Education Center – received a boost on Jan. 28 from a grant of $1.5 million in stimulus funds to support the creation of a nine-month renewable energy technician program. A further $133,000 went to Eastern Idaho Technical College for a one-year electronics certification program, which will feed students into ESTEC for their second year of hands-on lab training and instrumentation and energy control systems.
Looking ahead, Vailas sees those types of programs continuing to grow alongside collaboration with other universities and high schools.
“We could not do all these things without that,” he said.