GVN EXCLUSIVE: Duane Nellis

This is a crucial time on the campus of the University of Idaho, and from time-to-time GoVandals.net explores issues affecting more than just athletics alone. This is one of those times, as the school narrows its search for a new University president. This week one of the top finalists, DUANE NELLIS, withdrew from consideration, and Larry Johnson of GoVandals.net spoke with the candidate.

In May of 2008, Dr. Timothy White resigned as the President of The University of Idaho, and immediately afterwards the Idaho State Board of Education announced that a search for a replacement was underway. Last month, the SBOE brought two of the finalists to the Moscow campus: Dr. Duane Nellis, Provost of Kansas State University, and David Dooley, Provost of Montana State University. This week, Dr. Nellis publicly announced his withdrawal from the presidential search.

Dr. Nellis graciously granted GoVandals.net a brief interview, and the transcript from that discussion is presented below. We believe this is a critical period of time for the University of Idaho, and it was our desire to learn more about the search from Dr. Nellis directly.



LJ: First, how did the University of Idaho originally find you?
DN: "Well, there's a search firm, Korn/Ferry, Inc and Ken Kring who is one of their managing people and he contacted me. Korn/Ferry was hired by the Idaho State Board of Education to work with the search committee in this process and Ken contacted me about this opportunity."

LJ: Then you obviously said you were interested and proceeded to submit your credentials and be considered. When did they come along and tell you that you were a finalist?
DN: "Yes, I was very interested and there were different stages in the process. First, they did- what they called an "airport" interview. It was an off site interview in Coeur d'Alene and I don't know how many people they interviewed at this stage in the process. They were confidential interviews with the search committee, and I was flown in for that interview to Spokane and then driven to Coeur d'Alene. My interview was in early December but the search committee had two different sessions for these interviews with candidates-- one in early December and then they had another group they brought in early January after the holiday. After those "off campus" interviews they identified the five finalists and the two people that they wanted to bring onto campus, and of course that was public at that stage. So they contacted me and invited me to be one of the two that they were bringing to campus for interviews, and as you know that occurred for me around February 5 and 6, and then they brought the other candidate in the following week."

LJ: You had said when I met you at that session (February) that you had been at Idaho about 20 years prior to give a lecture.
DN: "Yes, that's right."

LJ: You were not totally unfamiliar with the campus?
DN: "No… I was not unfamiliar with the campus and the Moscow area. I grew up in northwest Montana. I was born in Spokane. I have two sisters that live in Boise. So, I was very familiar with the area and in fact had driven from northwest Montana down to Boise through the Moscow area - down south at different times. So, I was very familiar with the university and the region growing up in that area; then still having relatives in that general area and a summer home in northwest Montana we still return regularly to that part of Idaho and to the northwest."

LJ: With that being said, you obviously had impressions of Idaho. Did your impression of the school change any at this stage in the process?
DN: "Well, I think after my campus interviews I was probably even more excited about the opportunity. I could see where my particular strengths were a great match for the university, and I was pleased with the quality of people that I interacted with, some of the key administrators at the university, the deans, the faculty leadership, the student leadership, and the various staff that I met, as well as the passion of the alumni base. I just felt very confident the University of Idaho presidency was a good fit for me. In many ways I think my wife felt the same way about it."

LJ: I read a few days ago in some other articles in the media that you have dropped out of consideration or the process. I guess I would say first of all can you confirm that, that you have dropped out of the process?
DN: "Well, shortly after the Idaho State Board of Education brought the two finalists back to Boise in late February, representatives of the board contacted me and verbally said that they were offering me the position, and that they wanted to discuss the opportunity with me, and at that time they started negotiating with me. After that initial offer, we had two or three detailed discussions about the opportunity and their offer, and about trying to come to some agreement on the terms. We just couldn't come to an agreement between us as to the terms for finalizing an agreement based on the offer they had made. Earlier this week I informed the representatives of the Board that I was negotiating with that I could not accept the terms they had presented to me. And so I told them that it was with great reluctance that I felt like if we couldn't make any further progress I just needed to say ‘no' to the opportunity. I felt like I had to decline the offer they had put on the table."

LJ: You said it was terms. Now was it entirely money or was it perks or what was the difference?
DN: "It was primarily salary, although there were a couple of other items, such as a multi-year contract."

LJ: Is there any chance that you would reconsider, or do you think they might… I know… I have nothing to do with the board, but do you think the board might reconsider and come back? Do you think that there's any chance that negotiations would re-open between you and the board of education?
DN: "I don't know… I don't anticipate that because my sense is they've probably moved on to another candidate. I don't know that for a fact, but I wouldn't be surprised about that; so I don't anticipate that the board would be willing to come back to me."

LJ: You met a number of alumni, and you acknowledged that when you were in Moscow in early February. What was your impression of your discussions with the alumni?
DN: "It was great. I just felt the passion for the university, for the Vandal Nation, and I just felt that people cared deeply about the university, and to me that meant a lot because if you don't feel that passion as a candidate it's going to be harder to do things we all need to do to advance the university. I was just very impressed with the alumni I met in Coeur d'Alene, Moscow, Boise and also Idaho Falls. I just felt very positive about those interactions, and I received a number of follow-up e-mails from people that I met that confirmed that also. That doesn't mean there aren't challenges. But, if you look at what's happening nationally we're all facing those challenges together. But, I felt with the level of support that was out there from the alumni base, and from the friends of the university, that working with these groups there were a lot of possibilities to move the institution forward."

LJ: If you wanted to make any recommendations as to how this process would go or what the SBOE should do next, what do you think they would be?
DN: "Boy, I don't know. I'm just not sure I can comment on that. I just don't know. Everything seemed to go very smoothly until the end where there just didn't seem to be the willingness to negotiate a competitive salary and a few related terms. I thought that when I was the person they wanted they would have been more willing to negotiate, and I didn't feel like I was being unreasonable with what I was asking for. The University of Idaho is a land grant. It's a major research university and a complex organization with distributed campuses and basically a presence in 42 of the 44 counties through the extension network. In fact my salary would have been clearly in the lower third among land grant universities. But, I felt what I was asking for was a minimal salary for a person in that position and with those responsibilities."

LJ: Would you say that you were a great distance apart or do you think you were pretty close in your salary negotiations?
DN: "Well, I don't want to get into a lot of detail except to say that I didn't feel like we were that far apart, and I thought they reached a certain point and that was just as far as they were willing to go regarding salary and other related details. I certainly am sensitive to not having a salary that is out of line for this type of position. If you look at the salaries that are being paid in the Northwest for presidential positions at land grant institutions what I was asking for was less than any other land grant in the Northwest, yet again representatives of the board just didn't seem to want to go there."

LJ: You said the alumni were very passionate and expressed a lot of deep, deep pride and passion for the school and that sort of thing. Would you be open to any of the alumni supplementing your salary? Some schools I believe do that. I'm not sure how the process works, but would you be open to that as something that…
DN: "Sure… if it were done through the University of Idaho Foundation. In fact when I first started discussing this with the board representatives that was one of the options I mentioned to them because it was my understanding that Tim White, when he first started at the University of Idaho, had his salary put together with a UI Foundation supplement, and then I think the board, for whatever reason, about two years ago pulled all those supplements and changed that structure. I don't know exactly all the reasons behind that decision, but it's very common….very common if you look nationally at major public universities to have part of the salary supplemented by the foundation of the university. That certainly has to be approved by the governing board the university reports to; so it's not like the president can negotiate that with the university foundation if you know what I mean. It would have to be a package where they provide oversight of that compensation. For example, here at Kansas State University our current president…I don't have the exact figure in my head, but I think it's about $60,000 per year of his salary comes from the KSU foundation as an example. Again that wouldn't be unusual if you look nationally."

LJ: Is there anything else you want to say to describe how you feel about the whole thing now that you're at this point?
DN: "Well…I really thought it was a great fit… I was just so hopeful that this was going to work out. I'm strongly supported here at Kansas State University. In fact people here are overjoyed that I'm staying. I've had so many e-mails in the last 24 hours from people here who are just extremely positive about me staying. At the same time, I just felt like the University of Idaho, with what their needs are, with what the university is all about, and my passion for land grant universities, and with my love for the Northwest…..and I was so impressed with the alumni and with the faculty and students…… I just felt like it was a great match for me and my wife. So in that context it was just very difficult to not come to terms, but that's the way these things go sometimes…I'm not looking broadly at opportunities, but it would have to be the right fit for me. I certainly hope to one day be a university president and I do feel like I could make a difference at a place like the University of Idaho."

LJ: Thank you very much for your time.




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