Idaho: University models poor stewardship

Spokesman-Review editorial


Idaho - The Clark Fork field campus of the University of Idaho, near Scotchman Peak in the Cabinet Mountains, was more than an environmental center for students and area adults.

Located at the mouth of a canyon with spectacular views of surrounding mountains, the 35-acre campus was part of the community -- a place where elementary students and 4-Hers took field trips and where students and adults alike learned to identify bird calls and edible mushrooms.

With its location and ability to sleep and feed 50 people, the campus was an ideal base camp from which to hike Scotchman Peak. Or fish the Clark Fork. Or explore wilderness trails in the Green Monarch Mountains. Or stage a family reunion.

All that was lost last week when the University of Idaho arbitrarily sold the campus well below appraisal to outfitter Mark Berry. UI officials didn't advertise the picturesque property for sale. Nor did they let Clark Fork know about it. Later, they justified the sale by saying Berry was just the type of buyer they wanted: someone who intends to keep the property open for public use.

We agree that continued public access to the property is a good thing, but we'll never know if a buyer could be found to continue the recent mission of the Clark Fork campus. By opting for secrecy, rather than public involvement, the university slammed the door on other possibilities. And raised the prospect -- about six months after the University Place fiasco exploded -- that the college continues to conduct important public business in private.

"From the community's perspective, it wasn't an open process, it was kind of an under-the-table process," said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. "Typically, that's not the way that public property is sold."

Nor is public property generally sold for $220,000 less than the appraised value to a sole bidder. Berry paid $450,000 for the field campus.

The college has been caught in a financial bind caused by state budget cuts and poor decisions involving University Place, a multimillion-dollar scheme to build a branch campus and office complex in downtown Boise. UI squandered millions of dollars before it was forced to scale back the pie-in-the-sky project. Now, under interim president Gary Michael, the university is tightening its belt further.

A good argument can be made that the Clark Fork campus had to go. After all, it was draining $50,000 to $60,000 annually from the College of Natural Resources -- a tough deficit to swallow when budget cuts will cost the college 14 of 68 faculty members in the coming years. And interest in field campus programs had been waning.

But that doesn't excuse the university's approach to this sale. Bad economic climates come and go. But a piece of property like the Clark Fork campus rarely is available. By selling its piece of paradise to a low bidder without public notification, the university proved to be a poor steward of the public trust.


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