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'BOLD PATH FORWARD': ISU President Robert Wagner takes aim at budget deficit, details plans for the future


Apr 8, 2024

Idaho State University President Robert Wagner addresses local community members during a Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the ICCU Bengal Alumni Center last week.

POCATELLO — Idaho State University’s budget deficit of about $5 million will be eliminated within the next year-and-a-half according to new Idaho State University president Robert Wagner.

Attacking the university’s budget deficit was one of Wagner’s central topics of discussion while addressing local community leaders and business owners during a Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce breakfast held at the ICCU Bengal Alumni Center on April 2.

The initial ISU budget deficit was evaluated at around $15.7 million but has since been reduced to about $5 million.

“You’ve heard about the deficit that this institution has,” Wagner said. “I credit the great team at Idaho State University who chose to be bold and say we’re going to fix it…. The $15 million deficit has been brought down to (about $5 million). With the great work of the institution and professionals who are doing amazing things at Idaho State, that ($5 million) is going to become zero within the next year to a year-and-a-half.”

In addition to speaking on ISU’s budget deficit, Wagner touched on his background as well as his focus of involving the community to help enrich local students and improve their mental health and focus.

Wagner also spoke about his family and faith, specifically talking about the core values and parts of his life that have been meaningfully shaped by his experiences. Wagner detailed his The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to France, where he met his wife, along with the roles he served as a special education institute and seminary teacher that eventually led to challenging administrative roles he grew to cherish.

“All of my experience has been on the public higher education side, in which I have a firm belief in its power and its goodness to society and to communities at large,” Wagner said. “Public higher education is absolutely critical to society and to community development. I believe in it strongly.”

Wagner touted the grassroots-inspired strength of multi-campus systems and the unique needs that each requires.

“We have to change, we have to evolve, we have to innovate and Idaho State University will as an institution,” Wagner said. “The needs of our community change, the needs of our students change and the needs of industry change.”

Wagner continued, “What that means is we’re going to adapt. We’re going to evolve and we’re going to change, as we do regularly. As our students change, as our community changes and as the industry changes, we as an institution will adapt also. I’m firmly committed to that. I have experience with that — we have to innovate. We have to be a leader and be out in front.”

The touch and go nature of the modern academic sphere was another topic Wagner spoke about, explaining how many students will come to ISU to get a technical certificate and then leave to return at a later date.

“That’s how higher education is changing,” Wagner said. “That’s how it needs to change because that’s how the market is changing.... We are unique in the state in that we have technical education clear up through PhDs. There’s not another institution in the state that has that. We have a whole spectrum of degrees and certificates. We can be that institution that’s the highway. We can be the (place) that has all the on and off ramps that make it easy for students, no matter what their life experiences are.”

One topic that Wagner has been a proponent of consistently through his first few months on the job has been the importance of elevating student mental health and providing them with the support systems they need to be successful.

“We need to find ways to engage our students and help them to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place,” Wagner said. “They need that right now. They are struggling. It’s not just the 18- and 19-year-olds, it’s the nontraditional students too. They’re struggling. We are in a mental health crisis. We can say, ‘They just need to buck up and they just need to be tough’ but life’s been pretty tough. Life’s been challenging and it’s taken its toll.”

Wagner then appealed to the audience, reflecting on the importance of leadership within the community and asking the local figureheads of the valley to help to work together to bring a sense of value and belonging to the struggling students.

“Whether you’re a community leader, a government leader, a faith leader or a business leader, I need your help,” Wagner said. “Together, we need to engage with students and community members and help them feel that sense of being, that sense of place, that sense of community and that sense of belonging so that they can be successful. I firmly believe that we can do that and I believe this community has what it takes to be able to do that.”

Four key pillars were also promoted by Wagner as the foundational base for his plans as president.

Increasing access for students no matter their ethnicity, background or upbringing was the first of the core pillars, something he had previously mentioned when discussing the necessity of an institution being a metaphorical highway with entry and exit points.

The second was collaboration, partnering internally at Idaho State University but also externally with nearby sister institutions along with cultivating and maintaining relationships with businesses and members of the community.

Impact, specifically a positive impact, was the third tenant. Wagner discussed the multitude of ways that ISU could be impactful, such as economically or on a research level and that all these factors relay a sense of a return on the time and effort put into their investments.

“We’re a public institution,” Wagner said. “There’s a certain amount of tax dollars that go to support us as well as tuition. We need to be able to show a return on that investment. There better be a return of investment from Idaho State University. There has to be, there can be and there will be. There is great ROI and there will continue to be even more as we demonstrate impact.”

The final bastion on which the pillars stood was the ability to be bold. It was at this point that Wagner relayed all the work and effort being put into the budget deficit and how its elimination will lead to more opportunities in the future to take bold risks that could potentially elevate ISU.

“Together, we’re going to chart a bold path forward because that’s what community is,” Wagner said. “A community is made up of individual parts that work together, that synergize together, and as an institution, we’re going to be a part of that and we’re going to contribute and we’re going to help.”

Wagner continued, “There’s a lot of ways that we’re contributing and there is a lot of momentum at Idaho State. I’m hoping that you’ll leave today and feel confident in Idaho State University that we’re moving in the right direction, that there is great momentum and that there’s a strong desire to chart a bold path forward.”

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