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Opinion: What Gov. Cox is missing with his new Board of Higher Education

Gov. Cox’s new Board of Higher Education is made up primarily of industry leaders. How could this hurt higher education in Utah?

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A U sculpture on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

A U sculpture on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Recently it was announced that the 18-member Utah Board of Higher Education membership was being replaced with a 10-member board. Although the smaller board was part of the governance changes prescribed in SB146, which was passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year, the replacement of all members of the sitting board is rare. According to a statement, “The governor wants Utah’s colleges and universities to be more aligned with workforce needs and responsive to keeping tuition low, and he believes this board will do that.”

This new board, made up primarily of leaders from industry, will focus its work and decision making on workforce needs. But addressing workforce needs is only one of a host of purposes for postsecondary education. And education cannot and should not be reduced to employability. If this board focuses decisions on workforce needs alone, then I am concerned for the future of higher education in Utah. 

As I’ve watched the higher education dynamics in our state for decades, I’ve increasingly seen the downplay of the broader benefits of college and university experiences. Of course, the “economic” value is one of the most important reasons to complete certificates and degrees, but there are so many others that are critical for individuals, families and societies to thrive.

Even our own colleges and universities focus components of their missions well beyond marketable skills. For example, they prepare students for meaningful, quality, impactful lives; responsible citizenship, civic engagement and service; expanding diversity of thought and culture; and strengthening students’ abilities to learn, discover, innovate and thrive in all life domains, including home, church and community. 

In my faith tradition “obtaining an education and getting knowledge are a religious responsibility.” As one prominent religious leader put it, “We educate our minds so that one day we can render service of worth to somebody else.” This is a much broader view of education than the preparation one might do solely for a career. It is a deeper, richer and broader educational journey that prepares one for engaging, flourishing and leading in today’s complex world in any setting. 

I applaud efforts for the last several years by various higher educational institutions to encourage and help students graduate with their bachelor’s degrees in shorter amounts of time (sometimes four-year degrees take 8-10 years to complete). However, I worry about efforts, as one Utah leader said to me last week, that focus on “getting all students through college in a year or two so they can start jobs faster.” As Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”

I acknowledge everyone is different, and of course access and opportunities for education range widely depending on socioeconomic status, parent’s educational history, family support, and race and ethnicity, among others. Certificates could be a good place to start for some individuals, but I hope we are encouraging Utah students to continue. Education — formal and informal — is key to reaching one’s human potential. Technical knowledge is one important element of the educational experience, but let’s also continue to provide opportunities for our students to become truly educated human beings who use their heads, hearts and hands for good in their homes, workplaces and communities. 

The bottom line is that decisions made from an economic lens, without considering the broader purposes of education, will disadvantage Utah families in years to come. Those with deep knowledge and expertise within higher education itself should be brought into the conversations as well so that well-informed decisions can be made. As we look to the future of our children and grandchildren, let’s ensure that Utah’s workforce needs is one of many considerations. We cannot forget that education is about career choices, and so much more.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.