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One system for all Utah colleges? ‘We need everybody under 1 umbrella,’ lawmaker says

The state’s universities and tech colleges are currently directed by separate boards

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Fisher Goble cuts vacuum bagging during a composites class at Davis Technical College in Kaysville on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

KAYSVILLE — At Davis Technical College, some students are enrolled in technical training programs leading to certificates that will give them a toehold in the workforce. Some are in high school, others recent graduates.

But most are returning adults or “underemployed adults” seeking new skills so they can better compete in Utah’s booming job market or to earn credentials they can apply toward a degree in the future, said Darin Brush, president and CEO of Davis Technical College.

“Anything that can make this more frictionless and make articulation easier would be a great thing,” Brush said.

That’s one of the aims of legislation proposed by Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, that would place all of Utah’s public colleges, universities and technical colleges under a single system and a 17-member governing commission.

Presently, the eight public colleges and universities that make up the Utah System of Higher Education are overseen by the state’s board of regents. The eight technical colleges that comprise the Utah System of Technical Colleges are governed by a board of trustees.

A single governing body would better serve students, address workforce demands and address population growth and the accompanying increasing demands on Utah’s postsecondary institutions, Millner said recently while addressing the regents.

“I think it means we need everybody under one umbrella,” she said.

In recent months, Millner and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, have met with board members and administrators from both systems to talk through “how do we get from here to there,” Millner said. She and Wilson lead the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission, which is studying this and other reforms of postsecondary education.

Millner said the discussions were “really thoughtful,” with some board members going so far to say they would willingly relinquish their seats to facilitate the reconstituted board.

“I think we’re moving toward some real alignment,” Millner said.

This past week, Millner briefed the Senate GOP caucus on the proposal. It was also discussed during a higher education appropriations subcommittee meeting.

The legislation has not yet been made public, but she told the regents that she envisions a 17-member board that would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Utah Senate. The board would appoint a commissioner or chancellor.

One of the 17 board members would be a student. Student terms would alternate between a student attending a public college or university and student attending a technical college. Ideally, the student representative will someday be a student served by technical and traditional colleges.

A consultant’s report to the Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission envisions an inaugural governing body made up of current members of the board of regents and the tech trustees. That group would appoint a chancellor. Vice chancellors over technical education and academic education would report to the chancellor.

This was one of three options presented to the planning commission by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in September, and not necessarily the model that could be adopted by lawmakers.

Millner said the overarching goals of a commission are to better serve students and create a system flexible enough to meet future workforce needs.

“The world is changing very rapidly, we are going to need to have a system that is nimble and flexible, to be able to meet the needs of the future. It means that we really have to have everybody collaborating, working together engaged with industry and workplace, representation, etc., to make sure we truly can be a difference-maker based on our talent in this state,” Millner said, addressing the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

Millner said she wants Utah to be viewed as a state with a responsible tax policy and a low regulatory environment.

“I want to add the third leg of that stool and say we also have the best talent,” she said.

David Woolstenhulme, interim commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said both systems have engaged in a transparent process “and that will continue to be that way.”

Woolstenhulme said he hopes that alignment of all state institutions will result in efficiencies.

“We’ve got to protect all levels of education through this, regardless of what the system looks like,” said Woolstenhulme, who has also served as commissioner of the state’s technical colleges.

Jared Haines, interim Utah commissioner of technical education, said the System of Technical Colleges has appreciated the conversations regarding a single governing board, but acknowledged “there are those that are nervous about it. I think all of us have things that we are nervous about.”

“There were some good things that came from that, but there were some challenges as well. We’ve grown up a lot under our own governance. There’s some good things happening in our efforts as the UTech system,” he said.

In 2001, the Utah Legislature met in special session to pass legislation that placed all state technical colleges as an entity called the Utah College of Applied Technology, or UCAT, under the Utah State Board of Regents.

The arrangement fell apart, in part, over disputes over mission creep and frustration that the technical colleges’ requests for new programs to meet specific needs of businesses in their areas were bogged down by lengthy approval processes.

Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt, who was president of Snow College during part of that period, said the arrangement was short-lived largely because UCAT “was like an adopted child and they never felt fully loved.”

This time, the proposal envisions four members each from the current board of regents and tech board of trustees being the base members of the commission, “and then we’ll add eight more people so that nobody’s been adopted into anybody else. It is a totally new board and everybody is going to be equal.”

Career and technical education occurs at the state’s eight technical colleges but also at three colleges and universities that are part of the Utah System of Higher Education: Salt Lake Community College, Utah State University-Eastern in Price and Snow College.

“That’s super confusing when you’re doing budgeting, governance and all these kind of things. So if bringing everybody together will mean now that all of the technical training in Utah will fall under one board instead of these two different boards ... I’m really excited about this merger. I think that one of the outcomes is going to be that we’re going to be better because we’re better learning from the tech,” he said

UTech’s Haines said it is critical that a new alignment respects the strengths of the state’s technical colleges.

“Let’s have really strong technical colleges. Let’s have them continue to meet the needs of employers and industry and serve that part of education well while we’re building pathways,” he said.

Millner acknowledged that “change is hard. I also know that we have had some prior experiences that didn’t work. I think we have the opportunity, though, to have learned from those experiences.”

She envisions building a strong system that meets needs of students whether their destination is a technical college, community college, regional university or research university.

In other words “a system that will allow our students to go in the right place, but also that that first decision is not the last decision; that that first decision wherever they go, may be something that’s only a pathway to the next decision.”