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Utah would have single governing board for tech, degree-granting colleges under SB111

Single board will help make postsecondary education in Utah more accessible, affordable, GOP leaders say

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Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — All Utah technical and degree-granting colleges and universities would be placed under a single governance system under a bill championed by Senate and House GOP leaders.

SB111, sponsored by Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, would create a single Utah Board of Higher Education to succeed the Utah State Board of Regents and the Utah Technical Colleges board of trustees.

House Speaker Brad Wilson described the proposed change as “a big opportunity” for Utah and its postsecondary education systems.

“Our primary objective is to increase access and affordability for our students across the state for post-secondary education,” said Wilson, House floor sponsor of SB111, in a briefing with reporters at the Capitol Tuesday.

Millner, a former president of Weber State University, said she told fourth graders visiting the Capitol on Tuesday that one of the underlying goals of the legislation is to create frictionless pathways for students who may attend the state’s tech colleges or degree-granting institutions multiple times during their careers given evolving workforce demands.

“We want it to be a seamless pathway so you don’t have to start over anywhere along the path,” she said.

That resonated with the students’ teachers, who told Millner “that’s happened to all of us,” she said.

The inaugural Utah Board of Higher Education would include six members each of the current board of regents and tech trustees, two students members — one from a tech institution and the other from a degree-granting university — and four members of the governor’s choice who would bring specific expertise to the board.

All would be selected by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation.

The new board would appoint a commissioner for the new system with the approval of the governor and consent of the Senate. The commissioner would then appoint an associate commissioner for academic education and an associate commissioner for technical education.

Leaders of the board of regents and tech board of trustees indicated their support during the briefing, and the president of the University of Utah, Ruth Watkins, and presidents of tech colleges attended the briefing to lend their support.

Steve Moore, chairman of the tech trustees, expressed gratitude for the spirit of collaboration as the respective systems have worked with legislative leaders to develop a plan for a single system.

“I think it’s unprecedented. I think it’s groundbreaking for the students of Utah,” Moore said.

“It opens the door more for the students. That’s what it’s really all about, the students of the state of Utah and the employers who hire the students we serve,” he said.

David Woolstenhulme, interim commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said he believes there are strong partnerships between both systems, and under combined governance, “I think you’re just going to see that enhanced.”

This not the first time Utah lawmakers have passed state law to bring the two systems under one governing board. About 20 years ago, both were combined under the Utah State Board of Regents, with just one regent representing all technical colleges.

The arrangement fell apart after a few years over concerns that tech colleges were not adequately represented and program approval process bogged down their ability to meet industry needs as well as debate over mission creep.

Millner said she believes there are safeguards to help ensure this effort will be successful because technical colleges will have sufficient latitude to be responsive to workforce needs in their communities and at the same time there is not unnecessary duplication of programs.

Budget requests will be handled much as they are now. Technical colleges will develop recommendations separate from the degree-granting colleges. Each will be presented to the Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

No changes to the Legislature’s capital facility process are envisioned either, she said.

“With this, we are building a balance between setting roles and missions. We know the role of our technical college, making sure they’re able to be flexible to meet their needs as long as they’re focused on the workforce needs in their area,” Millner said.

SB111 “will give us a really solid foundation in the future,” she said.

The legislation’s first hurdle is a hearing before the Senate Education Committee at 3:40 p.m. Wednesday in Room 210 of the Senate Building.

According to a press release, SB111 will facilitate school credit transfers between state colleges and universities, thereby protecting students’ investments of time and money.

Another anticipated benefit would be reducing student loan debt and increasing graduation rates by making college degrees and certificates more affordable and manageable for students.