On June 10, the Idaho State Board of Education named Steven Daley-Laursen interim president of the University of Idaho. He took over for his friend Tim White, who left for a posting in California. Within a month of assuming his official duties, Daley-Laursen was in Boise, meeting with government and university officials and the media. Rising up through the ranks, Daley-Laursen had led the university's natural resources school since 2002.
BW caught up with the Vandal, world traveler and apparent croqueta connoisseur at Bar Gernika on Boise's Basque Block: "Every culture in the world has a hush puppy, but they all think they invented it," he says.
What is U of I's international reach?
There's a great deal. We always put the word "international" in front of "land grant research university." I like to think of international in a couple of ways. One of them is that we prepare our students to be successful by being adaptable to any culture, ecology, geography or political construction that they might work in. We can't give them a class in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Columbia, but we can teach them skills of adaptation that will make them successful anywhere in the world.
What work have you done abroad?
In China, I was involved in two projects. One of them was the use of public environmental art as a catalyst for public involvement in education on water quality. It was part of restoration of the rivers in the city Chengdu. I worked with an environmental artist and brought the expertise of the university into that, tying science and art together in order to pique the public's interest. That was before the Chinese industrial revolution and we were kind of on the front end, trying to share ideas of sustainability.
What about Boise?
Part of the reason that I'm down here pretty quickly in my tenure as president is because we have so many partnerships and also I have a backlog of other ideas I want to pursue. I spent a good chunk of time with [Boise State] President [Bob] Kustra yesterday; it was a big priority to do that. Our law school proposal, our medical education proposal, our center for advanced energy studies proposal, these are all successful if they're done as a partnership with other universities, so what I was exploring with Bob Kustra was really formal partnerships.
In this day and age you are never going to achieve your goals if you are not partnering with somebody. Nobody's got a corner on the market anymore. Nobody.
Are there redundancies among the universities?
There are subject matter areas that each of the universities will excel in that others don't. And we should appreciate that about one another because if anybody's great at anything, it's going to help everybody.
I don't think it's productive or motivating for the universities to be told that lines will be drawn around a region where they can do this and they can do that and you can't walk into each other's zones. I think it should be more that the state board should expect us, as leaders of the institutions, to get together, identify the overlap zones, identify the spaces for complementarity. I realized quite a while ago that if you just let special interests come to government they are going to dissipate and waste a lot of energy trying to sort out those differences. If you get together as players out in the marketplace and you say: "Here's what our common interests are and here's what our differences are, now let's go tell the policy makers what we really want them to do to support us," then they're going to be able to function. Sen. [Mike] Crapo has been very responsive to that approach. He likes people to get together, sort out their differences, find their common interest and then tell the policy makers, "let's go."
What does the proposed law school expansion mean for Boise?
This proposal for a law school, it's not about preparing 1,000 new attorneys for Idaho who will open an office at Capitol and Grove or Sixth and Vine or wherever. It's about the fact that every single profession—public and private—now requires legal expertise.
It's just the coolest, most creative conversation. A joint accounting and J.D. degree. Boise State really wants to grow their accounting side, Boise State really wants to do more with their masters of business administration. A joint J.D.-MBA—that's the kind of thing that would end up in the midsection of The Economist magazine. We also talked about the urban design institute of the University of Idaho and the new local and urban planning program that Boise State just approved.
What role should corporations play in Idaho's university system?
I'll talk to you about the upside of it and the downside. The upside of this is that industry, agencies, nonprofits, communities, individuals should all be paid attention to by a land grant university. We should be helping all of them apply knowledge and all of them should be helping us see where new knowledge needs to be generated. Kind of a two-way street. We have lots of those kinds of relationships, and a lot the of time we'll have those multiple parties all at the table with us, helping us figure out what that next research question should be. Possible downside: being co-opted. The thing you have to manage in your relationships with the people you serve is you have to manage to maintain the integrity of your role and mission, and that is: unbiased and credible. If our society loses the university as a source of unbiased, credible knowledge, we're in big trouble. We don't do silver bullets for anybody.
How long do you expect to have this job?
Speculative question. I'm not in the business of speculation.
Are you interested in becoming the permanent president?
I was interested in being the president of the University of Idaho as long as it makes sense for me to be president.
What does Moscow think of the Broncos?
Talk about all boats float higher. I think Boise State's sports success is nothing but good for the University of Idaho. It's Idaho. So congratulations to them and I hope they keep winning. Can we do better in our athletic program and should we do better? The answer is we can do better at probably almost everything we are doing. Winning's not everything, but darnit, it does help. I would say the key factor to winning that we do not have right is coaches who are in place and content for a long enough period of time to establish a very good recruiting program. I would like us to do things that we can to retain our coaches.