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A word with Kevin Satterlee, president of Idaho State University

Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee in his office. Photo courtesy of Idaho State University.

Kevin Satterlee has deep Idaho roots that run through the state’s public institutions of higher education.

A fourth-generation Gem State native and self-described “small town boy,” Satterlee took on his most public role last April when he was named the 13th president of Idaho State University. He had previously served in a variety of roles at Boise State University, including chief operating officer and vice president, from 2001 to 2018.

Prior to that, Satterlee was a deputy attorney general in the Idaho Attorney General’s Office for six years.

Satterlee received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Boise State University (magna cum laude) and was named a Top Ten Scholar of the university. He received his law degree from the University of Idaho (magna cum laude).

Recently, Satterlee sat down with the Idaho Business Review to discuss his accomplishments over the past year and his hopes for the future, including strong partnerships with top businesses and industry leaders. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is an exciting role.  Why did you want to take it on?

I have been on the job a year this month, and what I saw at the time and what made me want to apply for the job originally was all of the potential that I see at Idaho State University, and the potential for the things we can do in the future that will be beneficial for the state of Idaho and beneficial to our students. I wanted to help unleash some of that potential.

For me, that was the entire reason, and it has so borne out to be true. There are so many great things going on at Idaho State University, most of which I can take no credit for. For example, our statewide mission in the health sciences – the fact that we offer 75% of all health care degrees issued in the state of Idaho or the fact that we have one of only six accredited nuclear engineering programs west of the Mississippi, and the fact that that program has a set of four licenses from the nuclear regulatory commission that make it unique. So at Idaho State, we can do things that other places can’t do. We produce a radioactive isotope of copper that is used worldwide in cancer treatment and cancer research. We produce it on our campus in our nuclear particle accelerator that is on the campus. These are the things we have been doing, but nobody knew about them at the time. We want to bring that news to the state of Idaho and to our prospective students because it is about wanting students in every corner of the state to understand the choices and options they have at Idaho State University, so when it is time for them to go on and make a decision about how to better their life, they know they have these choices.

You are very community-minded in the role, clearly.

The university only exists for one purpose. Our why, why we exist, is to help our students better their lives through education. That is a benefit to the entire community, to the state, to our economy by letting students realize their potential in life through education.

You are in the midst of a lot of expansion and land purchases. Talk about those future plans.

Part of our plans for the ‘roar of the future’ is about investing in ourselves. We announced a renovation of Davis Field on campus. Davis Field is the original football stadium on the campus of Idaho State University, a very historic venue. In fact, it is the site of the first televised broadcast of a college football game in the United States. Over time, that facility had deteriorated, so we made a major announcement that we are going to renovate that field. Renovating that field is an investment in our future in an asset within the entire community – the entire community uses that facility. To say we are going to invest in ourselves and our future is about an investment for the whole community.

In Meridian at the Skaggs Health Science Center, we have bought two parcels of property that adjoin our existing health science center. Add those two parcels together, and it is about 28 acres that we are adding to that health science center so that we are planning for an expansion for the future. Demand for health sciences is growing. Idaho has one of the lowest rates of health providers per capita. Our programs are in high demand there. We are expanding them.  Health care is one of the largest sectors of the American economy and fastest-growing sectors of the Idaho economy, so to continue to serve the health care needs of the Treasure Valley and the whole state, we are planning for our expansion in Meridian.

Health care is such a critical industry, and you mentioned the shortage of providers. What kind of relationships do you have with the local health care companies? Are you getting their feedback on your programs?

The state’s Board of Education has given us statewide leadership in the health sciences at Idaho State University. Our connection to the health care industry is statewide. We have great connections with St. Luke’s and Saint Al’s here in the Treasure Valley, but we have connections with hospitals and health care providers all across the state. We have a close connection to the delivery of health care in every part of Idaho. We are placing nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, audiologists, in their clinical rotations throughout the state. That is one of the key business partnerships we have.

One of the things we are starting now is hand-in-hand with that – I want to make sure that all our graduates from Idaho State University enjoy a business and industry connection. I really think starting this is an achievement, We are starting to have high-level meetings between the top leadership of the university and top leadership at some of the major businesses, some of Idaho’s top employers. The reason we are doing that is so we can sit down with them and say, ‘What do you need to see from our graduates? What are you looking for in your future employees?’ I want to make sure our graduates are best suited to get that first job, and they are best prepared to be promoted for the rest of their careers. We need to know what business and industry need to see from graduates, what employers are looking for. We take that information to all of our programs and faculty and say what do we need to do to make sure our graduates are best prepared to be employable upon graduation. Beginning that dialogue directly between the university and some top-level employers throughout the state in all fields is going to be a hallmark of our ‘why’ going forward so that kid who comes to us from Malad or Meridian knows they will have a relevant education so they become employable when they are done.

I have heard from ISU faculty that you have really looked at everything through a fresh lens – even the small things like long-distance fees. Those small changes can make a big impact on quality of life.

It is almost like there are two sides to that. One is the student experience side. As they come and they are paying their hard-earned money for tuition to get the education that they need, you don’t want to put artificial barriers. Sometimes you never know what that small barrier could be that prevents a student from returning and completing their degree. We have to make sure we have processes that aren’t hurdles for them.

At the same time, it is removing the hurdles for faculty. Our faculty want to do more research, for example. If we have too many administrative barriers in the way, it keeps them from doing their research. It is about removing those barriers and letting our faculty do what they are trained to do.  They are all so smart and so educated, and I don’t want burdens in their way. Unfortunately, oftentimes, universities unintentionally put up barriers. I am trying to look at those through the lens of how do we take those down and streamline things.

A fresh set of eyes can be helpful. At times something has been in place for years and it has always been done that way and no one has questioned it.

Those things when they are put in place are always well intentioned. They were trying to do the right thing, so no one needs to get in trouble. It is about ‘how can we do that differently?’ If we adopt the mindset that in all of those types of decisions we are trying to be student-centric, it helps you look at those things differently.

You just hit the one-year mark as president. As you look back, what are you most proud of?

A huge achievement for us in the first year – I made a promise early on to the whole campus community that I would come here and build relationships. I am going to come here and listen and learn. That is what I have spent a lot of the first year doing, and in particular talking with our faculty. In higher education, our faculty are the core of what we do. They are the ones who built the rapport with the students and educate them, do the research and build business and industry connections. I spent so much of my first year talking to faculty in big groups, in small groups, one on one, to see their perceptions and their needs. That culminated in a new Faculty Senate Constitution on our campus. We have a Faculty Senate Constitution for the first time since 2011 because we are building a working relationship with our faculty. That has been a fantastic achievement. Internally, that is really important to a university and how we take things externally.

What are your biggest plans looking to the next year or the next five years?

We are going to ramp up the program of reaching out to business and industry and top employers. That is a top thing on our list. A second thing over this next year is a task force on campus to address enrollment and retention issues. We have to make sure we are enrolling students and improving Idaho’s go-on rate. Idaho has plenty of students, we just have to get them to go on to higher education and realize they can better their lives through education. Then once a student attends, we want to make sure they can finish.

You touched on efforts to increase the number of students going on to higher education. Under your tenure, ISU launched a rebranding effort to raise the university’s profile. Talk about how that has gone.

We have received a lot of positive feedback. At its core, the reason to do that brand effort is about telling students in Idaho ‘you have these choices.’ We have great things going on, but everybody has to know about them, so whether it is the leadership in health professions or the engineering programs, those are the things that students need to know so they can make those choices. It is not about our brand in competition with our sister schools. There are plenty of students in Idaho. It is about getting more Idaho students to go on.

At the same time, a brand image like that helps us with our own campus community and our alumni to feel pride in what we’re doing. It brings people in and makes them proud to be part of the university. Those are the same people we are going to turn to when we need help, when we need volunteers or donors or a research partnership.

You are an Idaho native. What does it mean for you to lead one of the state’s premier institutions of higher education?

It is an incredible honor. I am humbled by the opportunity. To be a kid who grew up in small town Idaho and then I was fortunate enough to get my education at Idaho’s public universities. I have worked in our higher education system for over 20 years. To be able to lead one of our universities, for me, a fourth-generation Idaho native, this is where I have lived, this is where I have worked, this is the state where I have tried to do everything I can to keep it a great place. It is pretty amazing.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.