Martin Schimpf, the interim president of Boise State University, paid his own way through college. Years later, he now sits in his office in the administration building, a Boise State pin positioned proudly on his chest, reflecting on the times when he struggled to buy groceries and pay tuition.
Schimpf, once a Pell Grant-eligible college student himself, recognizes the need to help increase student success for those who require financial assistance. He also recognizes the increasingly difficult path to a college education.
His experience—one that many students know first hand—has helped fuel his passion project for his tenure as interim president: striking a balance between need-based funding and merit-based funding, and closing the gap in success between students who fall into each group. This, along with bolstering diversity and inclusivity on campus and improving affordability and accessibility, is Schimpf’s shot at improving Boise State and changing the system of higher education.
“I worked 20 hours a week and I was able to support myself and pay the tuition,” Schimpf said. “You can’t do that anymore. I don’t have that direct, full knowledge, but I’ve been there. I’ve been in that situation where I’m struggling to buy food while I’ve got the next tuition payment. I understand it and I’m on (students’) side. Since I’ve been there, I want to make sure that as tuition goes up, we have the financial aid in place.”
He’s working—and has been working for years—to do just that. As provost, the position he held before being selected for the interim presidency, Schimpf pushed for a scholarship campaign that raised over $50 million for student funding. The True Blue Promise scholarship, a scholarship for Pell-eligible Idaho residents with strong academic achievements, made its debut from the campaign.
During his tenure as provost, Schimpf worked alongside former President Bob Kustra to increase student success rates. Still, he thinks more can be done.
“We’ve increased student success pretty significantly,” Schimpf said. “All of our students, if you look at the various demographics of our students, in terms of financial need, everyone’s success went up. But what didn’t happen, that we need to have happen, is the gap in success between a Pell-eligible student and a student who’s not Pell-eligible because they have more family resources, that gap hasn’t closed. They’ve both gone up in success, but we haven’t closed that gap.”
Although he’ll only be in the presidency for the year, Schimpf believes reasonable headway can be made on his passion project. The first steps? Compiling data and creating a plan. According to his peers, Schimpf is the best man for the job.
“He’s got an incredibly sharp mind,” said Richard Klautsch, theatre arts department chair and friend of Schimpf. “He’s an analytical chemist. He’s a data guy. He’s a data-miner, if you will. He loves data and digging into the stuff, and he’s very good at it. At the same time, you can still talk to him like a human being. He will listen to what the issues are, and he is always ready to work with you to try to figure things out.”
Schimpf hopes to data-mine to determine how to balance need and merit-based aid. Beyond that, it’s a matter of talking to donors, listening to their wants and needs and educating them on the necessity for need-based aid. Though many donors want to help the best student of a certain program, Schimpf proffered an alternative.
“Maybe you don’t need the best student,” Schimpf said. “Maybe the best students are the students who will be the best once they have the financials and the backing so they don’t have to work 40 hours a week to go to school.”
Beyond his special interest in closing the gap in student success, Schimpf has also expressed support for what Interim Provost Tony Roark called “a number of important initiatives,” including increasing diversity and inclusion and making a Boise State education accessible and affordable for underrepresented student populations.
According to Michelle Payne, assistant provost for academic leadership and faculty affairs, Schimpf’s leadership will help achieve those goals.
“Our efforts at retention and recruitment are going to stay strong,” Payne said. “I think that under his leadership we’re also going to make some progress on addressing diversity and inclusion. The deans are focused on what that means as well, and what that means for the long term. We’re going to do some really hard work on that.”
In 2017, the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion was released as a call to action for the Boise State administration to take the appropriate steps towards improving the campus environment. The report is filled with recommendations for the administration, and Schimpf plans to prioritize the recommendations and form an actionable plan.
For Schimpf, policies and practices are at the top of the list, and are reasonably attainable by the end of his time in the president’s office. He said he is asking the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to look at Boise State’s policies to ensure that the structures are in place to promote a more diverse university, in terms of both attracting new faculty and staff, and integrating that into the extracurricular activities that are available to students.
According to Roark, this critical thinking on Schimpf’s part will fuel his success.
“Dr. Schimpf has several skills that are fundamental to his success as a leader,” Roark wrote in an email. “He’s perceptive, asks probing questions, and thinks critically about lots of data and evidence. These help him to diagnose situations and make well-informed decisions.”
Susan Shadle, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said that Schimpf has provided continuous rhetorical support for more diversity and inclusion. He also shows support for the deans and their respective colleges, giving them room to work within their spheres of influence to impact change.
“He says it out loud: this matters. I think that is really important because people listen to what the president has to say about what we’re about, what’s important to us, and what we should focus on,” Shadle said. “I think that kind of rhetoric helps people say, ‘oh, that’s something that is important to us right now.’”
Finally, Schimpf has expressed serious interest in helping make college more accessible and more affordable for incoming students. Asides from pushing for affordability for students with greater financial need, Schimpf hopes to increase accessibility through the use of Open Educational Resources, easily transferable credits for general courses between Idaho universities, Advanced Placement score consistency across the state and dynamic new payment models.
According to Schimpf, in order to reach the state’s goal of seeing 60 percent of Idaho’s young adults complete a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2020, Boise State is going to have to make a shift. Making a college education attainable for much of the population means coming up with a new system, and Schimpf hopes to start working towards it during his presidency.
“We’re no longer talking about this elite fraction of the population like when I was growing up—20 percent. You’ve got a variety of people who’ve got a variety of learning styles, and different life forces and different ways that they learn, and you need to account for that or you’re not going to achieve this goal that we have,” Schimpf said. “I think competency-based learning and the use of technology will enable that, instead of just forcing students into this cookie cutter.”
For the interim president, the student experience is at the forefront of his mission. With any luck, Schimpf will lay the foundation for Boise State to mold into this new system, one uniquely tailored to the ever-evolving student body, before he moves back into the faculty.
“It’s a start, and we need to build off that,” Schimpf said. “That’s what I really would like to see us building momentum on in this year and beyond. Of course, I’m only here for a year, but I can at least show the way and hopefully the next person can continue it.”