Facebook Twitter

2 years later, UCAT still a ‘3-humped camel’

Technical training a tough fit with higher education board

SHARE 2 years later, UCAT still a ‘3-humped camel’

Two years after the wedding, the Utah College of Applied Technology and the Utah System of Higher Education are still trying to define the parameters of the relationship.

Some members of the UCAT board are asking what their role should be in this "arranged marriage," brokered by the Utah Legislature, that became effective June 1, 2001.

"We're a horse of a different color. They don't know what to do with us," said UCAT board member Doyle Mortimer, who represents Mountainland ATC in Orem. "The regents do a good job of running higher education, and the State Board of Education does a good job of running public education, but we're different. The question is, can UCAT become what it could be and ought to be under higher education?"

What makes UCAT different is the nature of its mission. It straddles the divide between public and higher education, serving both high school students and adults. When created by the Legislature, the college had 10 units, including Bridgerland in Logan; Ogden/Weber in Ogden; Davis in Kaysville; Salt Lake/Tooele in Salt Lake City; Mountainland in Orem; Southeast in Price; Southwest in Cedar City; Central in Richfield; Uintah Basin in Roosevelt; and Dixie in St. George. The Central ATC has since been aligned with Snow College.

UCAT board chairman Norm Bangerter, whose former role as Utah governor lends prestige to the assignment, believes UCAT's problems don't lie so much in the governance structure, but in the failure of all of the involved parties to resolve the historic underlying competition for control of applied technology education (ATE).

"If there is no willingness among the key players to sit down and try in good faith to resolve the issues, we might as well all find something else to do," he said. "I don't want to push against a system that won't change."

Greg Fitch, who came on board in September 2001 as first UCAT president, thinks the board members may misunderstand what the Legislature intended. "The board in reality has very little governing power," he said. During the legislative debate, the possibility of a third, fully independent, board was considered and ultimately rejected. The concept passed in the House but could not gain approval from the governor's office and the Senate.

"Utah isn't big enough for three education boards," said Cecelia Foxley, commissioner for higher education. Although some states have created separate boards to oversee ATE functions, that format probably would be too divisive in Utah, she said.

Having three levels of governance makes UCAT an anomaly, even in higher education. USHE has two layers of oversight, with a board of trustees at each college and university subject to regents' ultimate say. UCAT is sandwiched between the regents and local boards in each of its nine regions.

Responding to increasing frustration, UCAT board member William Prows has developed a "Critical Issues Summary" to help the board define its role. He suggests developing the board into a body that "advocates, lobbies and develops strong strategic planning." His seven-point proposal was unanimously accepted by the board in a May meeting. His presence was missed during the 2003 legislative session when the Central ATC was transferred to Snow College. The role of lobbyist was definitely missing during the 2003 legislative session when one of the UCAT units, Central ATC in Richfield, was lopped off and handed to Snow College. During a half-dozen hearings on the bill authorizing the shift, no formal input was provided by UCAT board members. The proposal never was studied by the board before the session.

Although Bangerter says he was aware of the legislation, some board members say they didn't know they were "being raided" until the bill was well on its way to passage. "I feel it was a poor decision. We had a statewide program, now we no longer do," said Mortimer.

The Snow College decision was generated by the Richfield community, said Fitch. The consensus was that two colleges (the ATC and a branch of Snow College) were too much for a small community like Richfield. It would be better served by combining the programs, said Rep. Brad Johnson, R-Aurora, who sponsored the legislation. The proposal was complicated by a case of serious embezzlement on the Richfield campus. Snow College vowed to retain the ATE mission, serving high school students as well as adults, a promise that will be carefully monitored, Fitch stressed.

The bill passed, but left several loose ends dangling: How will the ATE portion of Snow's dual mission be funded? Will Snow ask for more money from higher education, or will UCAT continue to provide funding for a school for which it now has no control? The two systems get their funding from two different legislative appropriations subcommittees.

The Central ATC board, by legislative edict, now becomes advisory to Snow College, but Carl Albrecht retains a voting position on the UCAT board, representing the Richfield campus.

"The details have not been discussed in depth," said Rick White, Snow vice president on the Richfield campus. Johnson also acknowledged that the Snow College situation is "a work in progress" that will require further attention.

The loss of the Central ATC raises the question of whether other small rural ATCs would be better served by allying them with their "sister" academic institutions. The question has been broached in Price, where both the Southeast ATC and College of Eastern Utah are located, said CEU president Ryan Thomas. So far, the notion has not seemed advisable because of such issues as faculty tenure (not an option in the ATCs), he said.

The future of the Salt Lake/Tooele ATC also is a concern. As state education leaders worked to create a statewide system, the Salt Lake/Tooele area was determined to be underserved, although it is one of the most densely populated. But by the time SLTATC was created, elements of the applied technology education mission had been carved out by local school districts and Salt Lake Community College. The ATC has had a challenge trying to wedge its way into the system, Bangerter said. Communication among the various players is not good.

If the smaller units should all be absorbed by higher education institutions, UCAT would suffer big gaps in the "statewide system" that was hammered out in the 1980s and 1990s. Fitch has said that the widely different "maturity levels" among the ATCs is a challenge. The disparities have affected attempts to create associate degrees and to gain accreditation.

As the UCAT board conducts its business, it is discovering where the abrasion points lie in the struggle for turf with public and higher education. Two instances illustrate:

The board has proposed creation of a high school diploma for students who opt for an emphasis on ATE education provided by UCAT outside their schools. State School Board member Janet Cannon, who also sits on the UCAT board, quickly responded that high school diplomas are the responsibility of the state board and any proposed UCAT diploma would have to be approved by the board.

At the same time, the state board is proposing new high school graduation requirements that would demand higher academic standards. Will the ATE option provided by UCAT become moot if students have no time left in a school day to consider applied technology options?

On the higher education end of the scale, a recent attempt to impose long-standing USHE policies regarding program review encountered strong UCAT resistance. In an early May meeting, it was proposed that any UCAT programs requiring more than 900 hours (roughly equivalent to a year of training) to complete should have to be approved by the regents. The regents routinely approve new programs proposed by any of the higher education institutions to control growth and avoid unnecessary duplication. It can take several months, sometimes more, to push a request through.

The UCAT board tabled the proposal, refusing to accept a provision that they said would defeat the demand for quick program decisions they need to make to meet training demands for local business and industry.

When the UCAT concerns were taken to Foxley, she responded by beefing up a current policy that allows fast-tracking of some requests for program approval. The regents rubber-stamped her proposals during a late May meeting. But, fast or slow, it's a new mandate for the ATCs.

Regents chairman Nolan Karras thinks this is how the relationship between UCAT and the Utah System of Higher Education should be fostered — by dealing with problems as they arise and creating exceptions as necessary to fit UCAT needs. He proposes a tried-and-true solution to newlywed wrangling — more dialogue.

"The Legislature created a camel, a three-humped camel," he said. Everyone concerned is just coming to recognize the peculiarities of the UCAT animal, "but reasonable people can work through these things," he said.

Having control over its own funding mechanism is one of the blessings UCAT relishes. It does its legislative bargaining through the Commerce and Revenue appropriations subcommittee, while the Utah System of Higher Education deals with the Higher Education subcommittee. But there are inklings that the higher education subcommittee could try to have the UCAT budget shifted.

"It makes it difficult. It now is a higher education institution," said Sen. David Gladwell, who co-chairs the subcommittee. "UCAT is an anomaly in the education system. There is some impetus to look at the funding mechanism. But first we need to let a little time pass to see how the transition goes."

E-MAIL: tvanleer@desnews.com