Feature December 19, 2017

Dr. Kustra Goes to Boise

How a former politician transformed a university

Few if any were shocked when Bob Kustra announced last month he was retiring from his post as president at Boise State University. He’s 74, after all, and has been talking with his wife about hanging it up for years. He even offered a non-apology for running long during his annual State of the University Address in August by saying, “I don’t have too many more of these to do, so you won’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Yet Kustra kept quiet about his retirement plans in early October in an interview with Territory held in his office—which he took over in 2003—where books spill out of overstuffed bookcases onto countertops.

Each summer, Kustra said he gets juiced all over again by the excitement of another incoming freshman class and the new buildings under construction and next projects that need stumping for and the legislative battles yet to fight and everything else. This fall, the chance to greet his grandson, who graduated from high school in the Chicago area and enrolled at BSU, gave Kustra another reason to stay.

Kustra said he doesn’t think about his legacy, but he’s forthright about checking off the boxes on the original to-do list established 14 years ago. Those include increasing student enrollment to nearly 24,000 last year—a record and a 35 percent increase from his first year in Boise—as well as transforming the university from an academic backwater into a regional leader in graduate programs and research facilities and funding, gains resulting in the university receiving the Carnegie “doctoral research institution” classification in 2016. The BSU Bronco football team’s rise to prominence, capped by the plethora of trick plays that fueled its famous 2007 Fiesta Bowl win, was a recruiting and funding godsend for the university.

Kustra’s influence has grown beyond the campus, said Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Dr. Kustra will be best known for taking Boise State from a small and fairly obscure university to one that’s well known around the world,” Connors said. “The second will be the unique relationship that Boise State has with its own business community. It’s something you just don’t see much in academia.”

Kustra deepened BSU’s relationship with Micron Technology, Inc. and its foundation, bringing in $60 million for buildings, including $25 million for the Center for Materials Research now under construction, and for developing graduate programs in engineering, material science and other expertise sought by the Boise microchip maker. Over the last four years, Micron has hired 92 interns and 68 employees from Boise State programs, a company spokesman said.

Mark Durcan, Micron’s recently retired CEO, said Kustra became somewhat of a mentor after Durcan was promoted to head of the company in 2012. Durcan described Kustra as “high-energy and enthusiastic, with a fast motor that’s always running.”

“It hasn’t always been easy for Dr. Kustra,” Durcan said. “I’ve seen him elated with accomplishments, but I’ve also seen him run down when things didn’t go his way. But there’s no quit to the guy.”

Political Animal

There’s a reason Kustra delivers speeches with the self-assurance of a longtime politician. Kustra served in elected office in Illinois for a total of 18 years, including stints in the state House, Senate and two terms as its Lt. Governor. Kustra lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in the 1996 Illinois Republican primary.

Kustra, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, also taught as an adjunct instructor at two University of Illinois campuses, as well as Loyola University of Chicago and Northwestern University. He said transitioning to president at Eastern Kentucky University in 1998 was a natural fit for him, as was coming to Boise State five years later.

“So much of this job is political,” he said. “It’s not just dealing with the Legislature. Every time I open my mouth, even if it’s in front of a Rotary Club, it’s political.”

Kustra was certainly political during his State of the University Address, which he delivered in the days following the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. He criticized President Donald Trump for failing to condemn the racist protesters, as well as Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador for equating white nationalism and black nationalism.

“There are no two sides to the explanation of what happened over the weekend,” Kustra said in his address. “One was the wrong side, that espoused racial bigotry and anti-Semitism. And the other was the right side. The lame efforts by the president to speak on the subject just make matters worse, of course, and further divide our country.”

Kustra again brought up the Trump administration while praising Boise State’s partnership with regional universities to study climate change. “They may be able to purge nearly all mentions of climate change on the websites of the White House and State Department, but they cannot purge climate science from the scientific community at Boise State or any place where sound minds prevail,” Kustra said.

Those shots were returned. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded by saying Boise State was among the colleges creating “a shelter for fragile egos.” Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico, said on a radio show that he took exception to being lectured by a 74-year-old white man, and that “maybe it’s time for [Kustra] to go.”

In October, Kustra declined to comment on the exchange with Labrador to Territory, as he’d done with other publications. “I’ve got a lot from calls from folks in government in both parties telling me to hang in there and it will ride out in time,” Kustra said. “I don’t need to comment on it.”

Blue Turf, Green Bills

The rise of Bronco football was a godsend for recruiting students. The famous blue turf and coach Chris Petersen’s trick plays that led to the dramatic 43-42 win over the powerhouse University of Oklahoma in 2007 increased Boise State’s profile not only in Idaho beyond the Treasure Valley, but across the nation as well.

In Kustra’s first year at BSU, 92 percent of enrolling students were from Idaho. Last year, nearly a quarter of students came from outside the state, which Kustra credits in part to the football program.

Diversity on campus also increased from 17 percent non-white enrollees to 25 percent.

Durcan said Kustra supported the football program as it rose to prominence then seized on its success to grow the university. “Big-time football programs don’t just happen,” Durcan said. “He invested in the football program.”

Kustra faced a fork-in-the-road moment when he fired Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier, credited by many as an architect of the football program, following NCAA sanctions.

An investigation found that the football, track and field, and both men’s and women’s tennis programs committed recruiting violations. The university reported that 63 players had received improper transportation, meals, and housing valued at around $5,000 combined. The NCAA levied three years of probation and a loss of scholarships, including nine football scholarships.

Big-time college sports are littered with scandals involving payments to players, plying recruits with sex and alcohol, academic fraud and so forth. Many athletic directors have survived more egregious charges than Bleymaier. But Kustra cut the athletic director loose, citing a lack of compliance oversight. The move was applauded in some circles and criticized in others.

Kustra said that, prior to firing Bleymaier, the athletic department functioned nearly independently from the academic institution. He said he made the move to tie the
two together.

“I did what I think was the right thing to do. And we moved on,” he said. “But the most important thing was that people around here understand that the president has to ultimately be responsible for this program.”

CWI Starter

Kustra also had a hand in the formation of the Treasure Valley’s second largest school. When he arrived on campus, Kustra said the vice presidents in office then advised him not to talk about community colleges, in part because the university wanted to protect its vocational programs, and in part due to fear that a community college might siphon away students.

Kustra said he was puzzled by the gag order for two reasons. First, the vocational programs, which had about 1,200 students, didn’t fit into his vision for transforming Boise State into a “metropolitan research institution of distinction,” which meant producing more master’s degrees and Ph.D.s rather than associate’s and certificates. Second was the fact that the Boise metro area was the largest in the nation without a community college.

“The first thing I did was say that the words ‘community college’ were not verboten on campus,” Kustra said. “We will be talking about it. I took it to my colleagues. And then I took it on the road.”

Kustra rallied support from the governor’s office, the City of Nampa and from business leaders, including Skip Oppenheimer, CEO and president of Oppenheimer Companies. Kustra recruited Oppenheimer to co-chair the Community College Yes campaign that promoted the college to Ada and Canyon County voters. The needed supermajority of voters approved creation of the college.

“Bob is an unsung hero there,” Oppenheimer said. “It was Bob who had the vision of making Boise State a major metro research institution of distinction, who felt that the community college type of areas of involvement needed to be separate.”

In 2016, CWI served more than 24,000 students between its for-credit programs and non-credited workforce development and basic skills education programs. Kustra said CWI’s growth hasn’t hurt BSU, just as large community colleges across the country haven’t hurt neighboring universities.

“[Starting community colleges] has a positive impact on universities because, when student finish their sophomore year, they have to go somewhere,” he said.

Dr. Bob Kustra will leave BSU at the end of this academic year. Photo by Todd Meier

Silo Deconstruction

Another point of pride for Kustra has been creating interdisciplinary degrees and minors to better prepare students for the workforce. The idea, Kustra said, is to align students’ minors and electives with their majors to make them better job applicants. That could mean an engineering student taking argument classes in the English department, or an anthropology major earning a certification in SalesForce or Microsoft software. The university will soon roll out an entrepreneurship certificate that would allow, for example, an art major to earn certificates in accounting, finance and other skills important to self-employed artists.

“This is where we’re ahead of the game,” Kustra said. “It’s beyond the major. It’s a bridge to a career. I’d like to see us get more strategic with our undergraduates and help them understand a history degree is a really valuable thing to take into workforce, but there are also complementary skills that can make it more valuable.”

The College of Innovation and Design is BSU’s “Fiesta Bowl win for academics” when it comes to cross pollinating disciplines, Kustra said. The new college was built on the mission of creating new subject-blending degrees and seeking to “leverage the speed, collaboration and risk-taking of a start-up to re-imagine the way we teach, learn and conduct research at Boise State,” Kustra said when the college opened in 2016. The college offers nontraditional certificates in subjects such as game design and human environment systems. The BSU Venture College, which helps students starts businesses, also lives in the new college.

The college, as well as the Center for Fine Arts now under construction and the Materials Sciences building set for construction, don’t happen without Kustra’s guidance, Durcan said. “He’s a real innovator, and he’s not afraid to try new business models or new ways of reaching his goals,” Durcan said. “The obvious example is the College of Innovation and Design, which is a novel thing for BSU and very valuable to the community, faculty and students.”

The college made a splash by hiring Gordon Jones away from the Harvard University Innovation Lab, where he was managing director, to be founding dean of the new school.

Talk of developing STEM programs—meaning science, technology, engineering and mathematics—has dominated education at all levels in recent years. But in his annual address, Kustra voiced concern for devaluing the humanities. He said BSU is striving to better sell the employable qualities of humanities graduates, such as critical thinking, communicating and teamwork, while supplementing humanities degrees with certificate and badge programs sought by employers.

In his speech, Kustra urged humanities professors to tell students to “stay in this major, because the long-term benefits of this major is at least as great as any other major you think is going to get you someplace in this world … Evidence is out there that by the time these students are in their 40s and 50s, they are doing just as well as the students who thought they had the world by the tail when they left college.”


How will Kustra spend his time after retirement? He’ll start by learning to fly fish, something he thought he’d do when he moved to Boise in 2003.

And then there’s all of those books. He reads a great deal to prepare for his weekly radio show, “Reader’s Corner,” in which he interviews authors.

“I’d love to do more reading,” he said. “I’m really a frustrated political science major who wishes he’d studied literature and English.”

Kustra, as a former lawmaker and self-described moderate Republican, regrets too often coming to loggerheads with Idaho’s conservative Legislature. The problems reside in the Legislature’s need to treat each region equally, which undersells BSU’s role, Kustra said.

“There’s one region in the state that isn’t equal. It’s way larger. It’s way more productive in terms of income and sales tax. There’s one university that’s way larger. This state needs to figure out a way to deal with that. I’m very disappointed that they haven’t and wonder if there’s something I could have done.”

Oppenheimer said Kustra will be remembered for increasing BSU’s stature and reputation. “He’s really put Boise State on the national map, and not just in sports,” Oppenheimer said. “Academics, he’s attracting nationally recognized leaders to the institution, and wonderful students.”

Kustra said he’s most proud of transforming BSU from a commuter school into a university with its own on-campus scene and feel where 90 percent of the students are full-time.

“When I came here in 2003, you could shoot a cannon across the middle of campus in the middle of the day and not hit anybody,” Kustra said. “There wasn’t much of a campus life. Now, when I look outside at noon when the classes are changing, I see we need more traffic lights to handle all of those kids. That’s what’s made these 14 years so rewarding.”

This article appears in the Winter 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.