Comments From the University of Idaho Interim President

This post was written by: Donald L Burnett, Jr.

Dear Friends,

In 1863, at the first session of the Idaho Territorial Legislature, William B. Daniels, Secretary of the Territory and Acting Governor, issued a clarion call for public support of education:

“It cannot be necessary to argue the necessity of education to the preservation of our free institutions….Prosperity, wealth, luxury, vice and ruin, are the successive steps in the career of every nation that does not rely upon the virtue and intelligence of the people. All the gold in these mountains will not save us from the fate of free nations that have gone before us if we do not educate our children, but rather make our decline more swift and sure….Let us establish schools and churches, encourage teachers, patronize the arts and sciences … and labor to perpetuate our institutions by a unison of intelligence and virtue, liberty and law….”

In 1933, exactly seven decades after Governor Daniels spoke, my parents graduated from high school in the mining town of Wallace, and enrolled at the University of Idaho. Their Wallace education had prepared them well: they succeeded in their studies at the university and became the first members of their families to earn college degrees. For them, education opened a gateway of opportunity. Their success was a testament to Governor Daniels’ vision for Idaho.

Fast forward another eight decades. Today, we at Idaho’s founding, comprehensive, land-grant university remain focused on student success. The stakes are high. Careers awaiting our students are being shaped by a rapidly changing, globally competitive economy. Nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created in America by the year 2020 will require at least some level of post-secondary education, yet just over one-third of Idahoans have attained that level.

Closing The Gap
Closing this gap will be a daunting challenge. Regrettably, we have observed that many students are not fully prepared to succeed in college, which means they may not reach the gateway of opportunity my parents enjoyed. The problem is statewide. Nearly one-fourth of Idaho students attending our four-year institutions require remedial math and/or English classes. (The ratio at the University of Idaho is lower than the statewide average; but even at our university, remedial classes are offered in English.) At Idaho’s two-year institutions, roughly three-fourths of students need remedial classes.

When students must take remedial courses, the pathway to a degree becomes longer and more expensive. Universities must allocate resources to such instruction, to the detriment of the rest of the curriculum. Moreover, if students with remedial needs do not succeed in traveling the entire post-secondary education pathway, employers may find themselves picking up the slack because core math and language skills are essential in the workplace. Employers need employees who are capable of problem-solving and critical thinking, written and oral communication, and an understanding of applied mathematics, in order to perform the jobs of the 21st century.

Success Starts Early
Success in college starts before college. That’s why, in the spring of this year, our then-president Duane Nellis joined all other presidents of Idaho’s four-year institutions in urging support for implementation of the “Idaho Common Core Standards,” developed to enhance the rigor and quality of student learning in Idaho’s public schools. The presidents’ letter can be accessed here.

The “Idaho Common Core Standards” have been developed in Idaho for Idaho; their content is not federally prescribed. Indeed, 45 other states have developed their own common cores, each state striving to address its own educational and workforce needs.

The term “common core” has become politically charged in some circles. After all, Americans –- especially Idahoans — are independent thinkers. The strength of the American republic derives from the authority and creativity of the states. Accordingly, each state can establish its own core standards and adjust them from time to time. But the future will not wait. It is important to act upon the wide consensus that students need to arrive at post-secondary institutions ready to do post-secondary work.

As readers of the Friday Letter know, there is an inscription at the entry of our historic Administration Building, proclaiming that the University of Idaho’s mission is to educate Idahoans “to their highest usefulness in private life and public service.” In order for us to fulfill that mission, we need all parts of the Idaho educational continuum to be strong.

Here’s to Idaho as a place of opportunity. And … go Vandals!


Don Burnett
Interim President

This post was written by:
Don Burnett

Donald L Burnett, Jr.

Interim President, University of Idaho