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College Of Southern Idaho's Incoming And Outgoing Leaders Visit Morning Edition

College of Southern Idaho

2020 has been a year unlike any other for Idaho institutions of higher learning. But the biggest change is coming to the College of Southern Idaho where, this month, President Dr. Jeff Fox is leaving after spending more than three decades at the college, (nearly seven years as its president), while Dr. L. Dean Fisher takes over as the college's fifth president.

Both men visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about their respective life changes, the challenges ahead for CSI, and the college's role in helping to create and protect a more just society.

“I'd like to think that we have capacity to find solutions. If not, then the human condition just gets a lot worse.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Idaho's education community has been, well, rocked by the pandemic. Schools were closed. Distance learning became the new normal. Just about everything changed. And then at the college of Southern Idaho, significant change this month. CSI is saying goodbye to its president, Dr. Jeff Fox, after working at CSI for more than three decades. And beginning July 1st, CSI welcomes its new president, Dr. L. Dean Fisher. And this morning we have the great fortune of having them both join us live via Zoom. Gentlemen, good morning.

DR. JEFF FOX: Good morning, George.

DR. L. DEAN FISHER: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: My first question, Dr. L. Dean Fisher, what does the L stand for?

FISHER: Oh, you know, the American constitution gives me the ability to decline to answer that question, but ...

PRENTICE: We'll be here all morning then until you do.

FISHER: No, no, no, no, George. It's Leon. My dad's name is Leon and from my earliest recollection, I was always called by my middle name, which has just actually just been wonderfully complicating in my academic life, focusing on the title. And it was at one point, but it's not now.

PRENTICE: Dr. Fox, who would have known how the school year would end? And how melancholy have the last few weeks been for you?

FOX: George, it's an interesting spin. I was telling Dean the other day, I had announced and worked with the board in early fall of last year, 2019, this is my intention. And at the end of the contract year here, I'd be ready to move on to retirement. And I want to give the college board enough time to do a really fine national search, take the time it needs. Fortunately we found Dean Fisher here and we're excited that he's ready to begin. And then in early March, of course, we had the pandemic and that took off. And the world, as you noted earlier, simply changed. And our lives have indeed been rocked. We've had to address issues, which I've been classifying as the event of a lifetime, the event of a generation, everything from closing the campus to canceling graduation ceremonies, eliminating our sports schedules, trying to figure out how to keep our staff and faculty safe.

Credit College of Southern Idaho
Dr. Jeff Fox

Of course, CSI is not alone in this story and we were part of a network and the State of Idaho has certainly a very innovative, creative and committed presence. The public certainly worked together to try and figure out answers where there are no answers. This is unprecedented in my world of education, certainly. And what's happening more recently with the George Floyd tragedy and calls for justice and equity across the nation have added to this feeling of struggle for all of us. And the social isolation that we feel and the opportunities to try and make a difference are compounded by the fact we're stuck at home or socially distancing. We're not in community like we would be during these times. And so, yes, it has been an interesting transition.

I was telling Dean earlier, I feel some days like I'm always a step behind. Something always is breaking and it's new and I'm trying to figure out the best and most direct path to a solution, which is fair, equitable, and safe for all our faculty, staff, students and community, has been indeed a challenge and a real test of the mettle of the College of Southern Idaho.

PRENTICE: I would be remiss if I did not note that CSI is home to a successful refugee center and it's student council has a successful diversity council. Dean Fisher, the president of CSI as much more than an education leader. Indeed, you are expected to take up the mantle of being a community leader. What is your message to a student body in general and in particular to young men and women of color?

FISHER: George, actually that topic has been very much on my mind as it has been, I think, folks across this nation. I am not going to recall exactly the Martin Luther King quote, but it's basically that our lives end when we stop worrying about things that matter. You know, college presidents have a lot of authority and a lot of power, but we don't have the capacity to change time. And I'm a historian, so I know the bitter realities of what our collective past has done to those of color. You've got the unlawful, unwarranted internment of Japanese Americans here across the Western United States. You've got issues obviously of slavery. We've got lots of things that we should not and are not proud of as Americans.

But ultimately I would like to default to kindness and to ... I hope the contagion of kindness. I was remarking that in my travels here, I saw that the University of Wyoming had signs up that they advocated contagious things such as kindness, but not COVID. I think we have to engage in appropriate discourse, find solutions to break the systemic challenges of racism and what they contribute to as a horrible landscape, in some respects. But I'd like to think that we have capacity to find solutions. If not, then the human condition just gets a lot worse. And I suppose I ask for the students of color, take refuge and hope, because I do believe that we have the collective capacity to solve these problems.

PRENTICE: Dr. Fox, can you talk a little bit more about your search for optimism?

FOX: You know, I have been relying heavily on the idea that we have a chance to assess the world around us and recognize that there is good and there is bad. And I think we have an opportunity to create good things. In the midst of all this, we are required to create goodness. And I'm going to quote from an email I got from a friend this morning that. They represent, I think, very well what I would feel about this. "I hope that all of us, myself included, will find more ways to do than to say, to bring love, grace, and humility into the world and to extend a hand of friendship to those around us, especially those who are forgotten, marginalized, discriminated against."

The dignity of every human being is a central tenant. And I think we need to respect and honor that in every way possible. That's the way we're going to approach this. That's the way that the college will approach. George, you know that we have a long history at the refugee center. It's been at the college since the late eighties, perhaps. We also have diversity council and we believe in inclusion and equity and fairness and the dignity of every human being. Those are the bright things. Those are the building blocks of what I was talking about, creating goodness. And to what Dean referred to: create hope. That we are a place that is safe. We are a place that is celebratory of the human condition. Putting those words into action is another story. The college is up to the task. I'm sure that Dean and the faculty and staff are absolutely up to this task.

PRENTICE: Well, work like this is supposed to be hard.

FOX:  Absolutely. Yeah. No one could have guessed. I was joking with Dean the other day. I said, way back in the fall when we were talking about this, I was really wanting to be able to hand over the keys to this car saying, "It's a late model, but it runs great. Has a full tank of gas, new tires, total check system." Now I'm saying, "Well, it may have gas. I think the tires are okay. And good luck." I go with my first thought, which is, this is solid here. There is work to do. And I know the Dean doesn't for a second believe that the presidency of an institution is an easy job. It is not.

PRENTICE: Dr. Fisher, things to do at the top of your list as a fall semester. Can you tell us about if, when, or how CSI begins a new semester?

Credit College of Southern Idaho
Dr. L. Dean Fisher

FISHER: Well, thanks George for the question. We're moving, obviously the Rebound Idaho process, and we're certainly following and working that plan as I believe every other institution is in the State of Idaho. We're currently planning a face-to-face student experience in the fall. Now, there are going to be some variables that we're working through the logistics of that. It's premature for me to get into a granular level response, George, but such things as amplified opportunities for faculty, staff, students, visitors, to engage in sanitizing stations and sterilizers everywhere. Probably some one-way hallways to assure that we've got effective social distancing and the faculty and academic leadership have developed something that is called High Flex, which will provide some online, remote learning opportunities integrated with face-to-face experiences so that we can know the goal is to maintain integrity, maintain access, maintain the opportunity, but do it in a way that's sensitive to the public health.

This is a conundrum. We know this society needs educated individuals, trained individuals to advance and grow. We need to do that in ways that respect the public health. I think we'll all, at least of my generation, recognize the reference. We're all the Wallendas trying to walk a tight rope, trying to navigate this, be sensitive to the safety needs, but trying to get us moving forward. And none of us want to fall off of that tight rope. So it's something that the other college presidents, Dr. Fox, and I have been struggling with. But we plan to be back open with the student experience, just sensitive to the public health standards that we need to observe.

PRENTICE: Lest we forget the Wallendas were a family.

FISHER: They were a family of tight rope walkers. And actually I think they tried to do the Snake River Canyon at one point in there.

PRENTICE: Dr. L. Dean Fisher, Dr. Jeff Fox. Two gentlemen, two presidents, one interview. It's all about the future, gentlemen. Thank you so very much.

FISHER: Thank you, George.

FOX: You're welcome, George. Thank you for taking the time to ask, during this transition, what the future is.

FISHER: Take care.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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