Marlene Tromp Wednesday urged her campus community to meet head-on higher education’s critics.
“We can win back their trust, just by showing them what we already do,” the Boise State University president said during her second State of the University address.
For this year’s version of the speech, the backdrop was decidedly different. A year ago, Tromp spoke to an enthusiastic audience of nearly 2,000 people at Boise State’s Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. On Wednesday morning, she delivered her 34-minute speech remotely and online.
The differences go far beyond simple optics. As Tromp took the podium to kick off the 2020-21 school year, the university is staring at a litany of new challenges.
Students are returning for fall classes that begin Monday, five months after the state abruptly shut down all of its college and university campuses. Boise State would lose millions of dollars in revenue if it shuts down face-to-face learning — as other universities have been forced to do. Boise State is already facing millions of dollars in revenue losses, due to state budget cuts and the suspension of its fall football season. Enrollment remains a big variable, although Tromp has said Boise State could buck national trends and grow its student numbers this year.
Tromp didn’t address all of these questions Wednesday — although she praised university staff for their work on the reopening.
However, she did revisit the politics of higher education. Since her arrival at Boise State in July 2019, Tromp has been a political lightning rod, drawing criticism from conservatives who oppose campus diversity programs that predate Tromp’s tenure. That backlash continued into the 2020 legislative session, as House members sparred over the higher education budget.
“We’ve been the special target of some challenging assessments in the last year,” Tromp said Wednesday. “Often Boise State has been called out specifically.
“And we know that there are challenges in our state with people losing faith in higher education. We have the lowest educational attainment in the country. This is because people do not understand what the benefit is to getting that degree. And they don’t see what the university has to offer.”
Citing Boise State’s history — as a community college founded during the Great Depression — Tromp urged staff and faculty to remain resilient and innovative during the pandemic. She listed several successes and touted several new programs.
- Boise State received a record $58 million in research awards this year, and its research funding has grown by 45 percent over five years.
- A rural pilot program — launched in McCall, Mountain Home and Payette — will match remote students with in-person faculty support. Tromp says Boise State could serve as a “national model” in addressing the chronic graduation gap in rural America.
- Another new rural program, Hometown Challenge, will match students with government entities, nonprofits and businesses in their communities. The goal is to help students see how their college degree can help them find jobs, and contribute close to home.
- The new Bronco Gap Year is designed to help students who can’t afford full-time college — or are uneasy about being on campus. Students will work with a faculty mentor, and can earn up to nine online credits at reduced cost.
“We have been a catalyst for positive change in an incredibly difficult time,” Tromp said. “We can’t go back to business as usual. … We will not wither in the face of challenges or criticism.”