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M. Duane Nellis

Not many people know what the M. stands for.

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When M. Duane Nellis (not many know that M. stands for Marvin) took office as the University of Idaho's 17th president in July 2009, he was the institution's fifth president in approximately 10 years. He has already outlasted a number of his predecessors. Facing a lean budget and greater demand from students and faculty, Nellis conceded that he doesn't like seeing tuition go up higher, but for now, it's the only option. Besides, he said, tuition is still a bargain.

By how much will tuition increase?

[By] 8.4 percent. The total with tuition and fees for in-state residents will be approximately $5,800 per year. Among our peer institutions in the region, only the University of Wyoming is less than us right now, and they have significant subsidies from coal, natural-gas and petroleum taxes.

But this year's increase follows a year when tuition went up 9.5 percent.

We're still a great value. Washington State is eight miles away from our university, and they are double what we are for in-state residents. Payscale.com recently did an analysis of return on investment--in other words, the cost of tuition vs. the potential earning power in a 30-year career. Among public universities, the University of Idaho was 52nd in the nation when it came to return on investment.

I'm sure you have seen the charts that track tuition vs. the amount of general funding from the state. Those numbers continue to come perilously close to one another, and you said once that this could become unsustainable.

We need to articulate to the general public and our legislators how important higher education is as an investment. For every $1 they spend, the University of Idaho returns $9-$10. But we also need to boost our recruitment. We want to go after every qualified Idaho resident, but we want to complement that with out-of-state recruitment.

So you want to increase enrollment to increase your revenue?

Our goal is by 2020 to be up to 16,000 students. We're currently at 12,300.

Won't that require considerable investment into brick and mortar?

No. We have some classroom capacity, plus we still have capacity in our residence halls, which are at about 80 percent currently.

How do you measure quality of student life?

We have 3,800 students that do service-learning projects each year. They contribute 150,000 hours of community service. I'm convinced that those are transformative experiences, inside and outside of the classroom.

I understand that you spent a night in a dorm last semester. How did you sleep?

It was fine. I ended up eating in the dining hall, worked out with the students in the rec center, and we had a fireside chat late into the evening. It was great.

As the evening went on, did some of the conversations become a bit more real?

Absolutely. They were impressed that I was willing to listen. They asked for improvements to the residence halls. They reflected on the rec facility and even the food. Some of the cost has gone up, but the cost of food continues to rise across the country.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the words that were exchanged between you and Boise State President Bob Kustra regarding the Bronco-Vandal football rivalry.

He and I have a great relationship, and I think we want to move beyond that.

But that story took on a life of its own. Isn't there a lesson here about how words matter?

I think the key is for us to move beyond that. We all learn from things we do in life.

When you took this job, you followed a number of short-timers.

About five presidents in 10 years.

You said you weren't going anywhere anytime soon.

What I said was, I wanted to make this my last stop. But of course, that means support from the people I work for, and I have to feel good about what I'm doing.

So, two years later, on a scale of one to 10, where are you?

I'd say about eight or nine. I feel really good about the quality of our faculty, staff and students. Our alumni base has been super. The budget situation? Well, that's been challenging. It wakes me up at night sometimes, but we're not alone in that.

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