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The Year of Big Bucks

Boise State's Bob Kustra reflects on the hunt for private donors and campus life in the school's 75th year

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yes, the Broncos are playing well again, mopping the floor with Weber State like they were standing still. If anything is expected to pick up media attention in this 75th year of Boise State, it will likely be the ongoing power of the school's football team and Ian Johnson, the star running back.

But the larger story of this year, which will likely have a greater impact on Boise's former junior college, is the school's decision to embark on its first-ever comprehensive fund-raising campaign, an unprecented hunt for $175 million over the next five years. Kustra surprised many late last month when he announced the new push. But he had another surprise, too: Not only had his school been quietly fundraising for three years, but it had raised $70 million in doing so.

The effort was characteristic of Kustra's boldness, and it sent a warning shot across the bows of Idaho's other higher-education institutions that there was a big fish in the water, and no big donor was safe from its overtures.

Kustra's decision to go for the private funding, he said, is one that is in part inspired by the Idaho Legislature's inability to provide the state's largest school with support in proportion to its growth. Instead, Boise State finds itself marooned in the Great State of Ada, where political clout is fractured at best.

"First, public higher education in America is in greater competition with other state priorities than ever before, and when you compare Boise State's per-student funding to our sister institutions, we come in fourth. We come in last," Kustra said. "The infrequent and scattered capital appropriations for higher education force us to build our infrastructure on the backs of our students. To put our capital needs in perspective, one-third of the state Department of Public Works projects statewide are currently at Boise State University. Unfortunately, none of these projects involve state appropriations. We're going to do something about that, folks."

To do this, Kustra has rearranged and augmented his staff and faculty to build up expertise in fundraising at all levels, and has hunted for research talent and dollars to help tell a story about a university aiming to become the state's premier research facility.

As the school begins its 75th year, Boise Weekly sat down with Kustra to ask him about hunting for dollars, about life on campus with a record enrollment of 19,000 students, and how things will change going forward at Idaho's largest, albeit youngest university.

BW: Your decision to pursue this massive private fund-raising campaign surely sent some ripples throughout the Idaho higher-ed community. Should the University of Idaho or Idaho State University see this as a warning that you guys will be chasing after all the big money out there?

Boise State President Bob Kustra - LEILA RAMELLA

Kustra: There will always be someone right behind us.

Don't forget, less than a year ago, the University of Idaho went before the State Board of Education, asking for increased support, and they were successful.

Clearly they were, by then, aware of what we were intending.

There is some degree of ownership in a city of Boise's size, with so many alumni here. There's always going to be strong Vandals who want to contribute to the University of Idaho campaign.

Then there is that huge number of donors who may have gone to another university program, but have adopted Boise State University. This has clearly become the adoptive university for so many in the valley.

I feel very good about our number. I'm feeling very good about their number. There are more than enough donors. They have a national network. They have that national advantage. They'll be working that.

We'll also tap into an honorary alumni association. Two years ago, we gave Senators Brad Little [Republican of Emmett] and Joe Stegner [Republican of Lewiston] honorary alumni status. We will occasionally identify people as "honorary alumni," and we work with people who might want to become donors to the athletic program or a specific area. I have a donor I'm working with now, who attended BYU, and who follows their games.

We simply don't distinguish whether you're an alumni or not.

I was struck by some of your comments in your State of the University speech. You made some pretty pointed comments about the Legislature and the state's appropriations process leaving you guys short, and you indicated that you've been forced, almost, to go this private fund-raising route.

There isn't much choice.

There are two areas where work needs to be done in the state funding of higher education.

BSU ranks last among the three universities in per-student funding. That makes no sense. We're out there by ourselves. I'm just reminding the Legislature that if we don't fund universities that are growing, the students suffer.

BW Editor Shea Andersen speaks with Boise State President Bob Kustra - LEILA RAMELLA
  • Leila Ramella
  • BW Editor Shea Andersen speaks with Boise State President Bob Kustra

When you have a lot of graduate programs, there will be some accounting for student enrollment.We let enrollment increases get away from us. They're not funded when they happen. They create huge inequities down the road, which the Legislature doesn't like to deal with.

The second aspect of that is capital funding. It's not as process-oriented. I think I said in my remarks that it's scattered and inadequate. We've had two new buildings put up in the last 15 years. You can go years with little to no rotation of funding distribution.

It's hard to understand, what is the real rationale?

Do you suspect that it's partially the fault of the Ada County delegation, which has been fractured and is not in any position of power, other than Mike Moyle, the House majority leader from Nampa?

It doesn't help when you don't have as many members of leadership representing the Treasure Valley area, as you do in other parts of the state. Look at the key committee chairmanships. They're coming from other parts of the state.

That places Boise State University, when it comes to placing a priority on its needs, at a disadvantage. Our local legislators are very supportive of Boise State. They'd love to be there. They're just not, as long as they're a very small minority in this state.

Tell me how you decided to go down this road of this massive private campaign.

About a year after I arrived, we did a feasibility study. The study came back: It won't work, because you don't have any staffing. You need deans and vice presidents who will go and raise money.

Eventually, I went to our foundation and asked them to help us fund positions. Over the course of the last few years, we've been building staff and expertise of staffing, to be ready for the campaign. Now, each college has a development director.

I understand you'll be using a private consultant to help with this effort?

In the last 20 to 25 years, public universities like ours have turned to consultants and private campaigns to look for support. It's a phenomenon that cannot be called new.

Look at Idaho State University. They raised $152 million a couple of years ago. That probably was the final signal to me.

The deans were ready for this. Believe me, there was no resistance. The only question was, "What do I do? How do I go from being a dean to a fundraiser?"

The deans' counsel has been working with the deans, and the consultants have been working with them as well.

Who's the private consultant you're working with?

We're working with Bruce Mathews of Campbell and Company. He was with Missouri State.

Did you consider using a local campaign consultant?

There really aren't any local consultants who do this kind of thing. There are literally about four companies that do this kind of higher-ed campaign fundraising.

You strike me as a natural fundraiser. But will there be some adjustment for you as you adopt this new role?

I've had to hand off some assignments. Every time I take a luncheon here on campus, I'm taking time away from lunching with a prospective donor who might be able to give a substantial gift.

You've been an elected official, so I suppose raising money isn't foreign to you.

My experience in raising money for 18 years of elective office, now that's a very different kind of fundraising. It's very abrupt, and direct.

At the university, it's much different. It's not necessarily about me. It's about the faculty and staff.

I just met with a donor who could become the largest donor in Boise State history.

Oh, who was that?

(Laughs) I can't tell you, but I'll be able to tell you any day now.

[No announcements have been made as of press time.]

Believe me, we're as anxious as you are to tell the world. By the way, I don't think it will be very long before we can say.

Let's change subjects a little bit. You were supportive of the new College of Western Idaho. How will the presence of that new school change things on your own campus?

It's going to allow us to make room in our classes for students who are interested in going on to graduate school.

What the Selland College of Applied Technology did for us, really, was boost our workforce development. What the College of Western Idaho does, first and foremost, is allow BSU to expand its role as the metropolitan research university.

Secondly, we were hamstringing the efforts of Larry Selland College to expand. They weren't able to expand beyond 1,200 students a year. They weren't able to address needs in the community. For example, I was just meeting with some veterinary students, and there's a tremendous shortage of veterinary technicians in this valley. Just tremendous.

I think the community really suffered from having what looked like a community college buried in BSU, but that was limited in its ability to offer technical vocational education. It's not fair to the students.

And accessibility is an issue. We had to turn down 800 students last year. You have to wonder what happened to those 800 people. They don't just disappear. Where have they gone?

Another area BSU has a role is in the area of developing a high-tech economy in the Treasure Valley. How do you see that process going?

Well, I sit on the Governor's Technology Advisory Council, and I think there's been some difficulty knowing just what our role really is. I think we're coming closer to figuring that out. But there's still discussions under way on how we can promote and add a high-tech economy in the state.

It's a substantial group. The governors have all been there, and have all contributed. You have around the table three university presidents, and very powerful and very expert participants.

I probably didn't answer your question so much as ask it all over again.

When the group was started by Governor Kempthorne, he probably came to the realization that the council is going to have to work with the schools to help build this high-tech economy.

How has Governor Otter been as a participant? He's had some pointed disagreements with the group over just what their role is in his policy-making, and I don't get the sense of him as a technology aficionado.

Well, on the one hand, Governor Otter is the ultimate old cowboy.

But he also was the head of international business development for Simplot. He's got that background.

The second time I ever had a chance to have a long talk with Butch Otter, we were in D.C. at a restaurant, and we had a long talk about the economy and higher education.

I was very impressed. On economic development in general, and high-tech in particular, he has a clear understanding of what needs to happen.

But, of course, now that he's in office, his primary challenge is resources. He's not the first executive to come along with a lot of ideas, and then to come up with the bright idea that you need more money.

Maybe we're at a stage where this council needs to re-examine its role. One of them, I would argue, is that we focus on our colleges of engineering, forcing more collaboration between our universities.

I'm very impressed with the new director of the Department of Commerce, Jim Ellick, though I haven't had a chance to meet him yet. But his background in the Silicon Valley area is impressive. I would hope, eventually, that the new director would work with this council. I envision him using the council, selectively, as a sales team for Idaho's emerging tech economy.

Let me switch gears a little bit, to your sense of campus life there at Boise State. As you develop more of a residential feel to the campus, I imagine that could change the dynamics at the school quite a bit, and create new confrontations over values and direction there. I'm thinking of the flap over some of the things the College Republicans have done in the last year, like their protests over the political bent of BSU guest lecturers.

I don't think that episode really had anything to do with residential issues.

But I do think you're right: When you house 4,000 students, you create opportunities for them to take ownership of the campus, and to have conflicts as well.

We have an excellent relationship with the students. We worked hard to develop a good working relationship with the students.

Of course, we're not yet a residential campus. We have a 1,300-bed capacity for 19,000 students. We're a long way from being a residential campus. I've not noticed any problems with our residential halls.

Back when we were a commuter school, we had students who organized and raised a little cain around here. But we have a very positive campus atmosphere here, among the students, and we have them to thank for that. In every way here, we're blessed here at Boise State with a positive student leadership. I've told many people, I've never seen this harmonious a relationship between the students and the administration.

Now, you brought up the College Republicans. That really was limited to a small number of students. The two students who were on it, who raised the issue of the campus speaker series, I don't think were representative of the greater student body.

The one way we resolved the question over the speaker series was to separate the two lecture series. We're still going to have the distinguished lecture series, but the money for that is going to come out of another area.

Do you think you've solved the question of what to do about weighting the speakers in a more liberal or conservative fashion? And, does it matter?

We can't have, and I don't think we should have, a calculus to measure each speaker against each other. That's not going to happen.

Isn't it interesting on how that has little effect on whether they become Democrats or Republicans? Study after study shows that. It proves that what universities do is create critical perspectives.

I think our students are very reasonably inclined when it comes to the way they approach the whole issue. Last year's issue was, at the end, about the complaints of one or two students. A lot of our people's eyebrows were raised about the nature of those complaints. Take Hans Blix, for example. He was one of our speakers, and he doesn't come from either end of the political spectrum.

At the end of the year, we're better off with what happened. At least it sorted out who chooses the speakers. If it's a student fee, it ought to be a student committee. It's their money.

So who do you think they'll line up for speakers?

Just to show you how bizarre this whole thing has turned out, I was approached by a group of moderate College Republicans who were, they felt, not represented by the two who led the charge against speakers last year.

They were looking for their first speaker, and they were interested in getting Fred Thompson. He's a little busy right now, in the other "I" state.

Speaking of politicians, how's it going with former Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb? How will you use his political capital to advance BSU causes?

He's a distinguished lecturer, working with our political science department. He's currently working on a special program, a one-day conference.

He's been an adviser to me on the issues of strategy and the university's relationship with state and federal governments. He's got experience I don't have.

Bruce has become, in the meantime, a very good friend. We're now talking about our strategy for the next legislative session. He's really, really respected across the state.

Here's a corny question: If you could talk to former presidents of Boise State University, what would you tell them about what's changed here over the last 75 years?

I would tell them about the size, complexity and sophistication of our research faculty. The grants they're bringing in, and the cutting-edge research on Alzheimer's and cancer. This university has a proud history. That's what I would certainly put out to any past presidency. Of course, this didn't start with me over the last five years. That started 10 years ago.

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