SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Regents took concrete steps Friday to bring higher education governance and administration under one body — and one roof.
Meeting by videoconference to abide social distancing guidelines necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the board approved a remodel of the Utah System of Higher Education’s offices in The Gateway to accommodate the merger of Utah’s public degree granting institutions and technical colleges.
The regents approved the use of up to $90,000 of internal fund balances to cover costs of construction, furnishings and equipment. The project is expected to be completed by July 1.
The Utah System of Technical Colleges is currently housed in leased offices at 310 S. Main, which it will vacate and relocate to the offices of the merged system.
The merger of the state’s technical colleges and degree-granting colleges and universities was envisioned by the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission. Its recommendations became the framework of SB111, passed by lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session to create a single governing system and one commissioner over all public institutions.
Senate Assistant Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, sponsor of the legislation, said during legislative debate that a single system would facilitate credit transfers, better meet workforce training demands and create “seamless pathways” for students who, over the course of their careers, might attend multiple institutions of higher education to retrain for future jobs.
Establishing a physical space for the single system of of eight technical colleges, two community colleges, four regional universities and two research universities is just one part of a transition plan that envisions the launch of Board of Higher Education administration on July 1 and the first meeting of the Utah Board of Higher Education on July 10.
Other key milestones of the plan approved by the regents Friday include the governor’s appointment and the Utah Senate’s confirmation of 18 board members; recruitment and appointment of a new commissioner; combining operating budgets and the transferring of information technology resources and data.
“This is going to happen so fast,” said Harris Simmons, regents board chairman.
The inaugural Utah Board of Higher Education will include six members each of the current board of regents and tech trustees, two students members — one from a technical college and the other from a degree-granting university — and four members of the governor’s choice who would bring specific expertise to the board.
“Within just about a couple of weeks we’ll know who the new board is, and I expect out of that will come a search committee and a little more understanding what the process is going will look like,” he said.
To that end, the board approved the job description for the commissioner of higher education. The technical colleges’ governing board approved the position last week.
It says, in part, that “the new commissioner will be responsible to unify two separate but effective organizations into one flourishing system, while navigating the inevitable challenges of large-scale change. The commissioner must possess the necessary qualities to build trust and credibility with diverse groups and individuals, including the members of the Board of Higher Education, students, the state Legislature, the governor, business and industry leaders, state and local K-12 leaders, and peers throughout the country.”
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez suggested that the job description include more context about the size and nature of the state’s higher education enterprise.
“If I were a candidate looking at this job description, I’d want to know how big is the budget, how many students are served, how many employees there are in the workforce. We have a research hospital in the system, my529, a little more mention of these types of details. I think it helps in the recruitment process,” she said.
Several college and university presidents said they would like to nominate candidates and if possible, have input on the selection of the new commissioner, who will oversee all presidents in the system.
Simmons said he would welcome the presidents’ input but reminded them that the selection of the new commissioner will be the responsibility of the new Board of Higher Education.
Meanwhile, the systems are on a fast track to get the new system up and running by summer.
“My own view is that when you’re putting two organizations together, you need certainty as quick as you can get to it for the sake of all of the staff, issues. There’s just a lot of decisions that are going to have to be made, how this new board functions, etc.,” Simmons said.