The Utah Board of Higher Education is on the cusp of a wholesale change of board membership.
This summer, the 10-member board, which includes one student, will succeed the current 18-member board under governance changes prescribed in SB146, passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox retained none of the existing board members, whose service has ranged from a decade to one year. Typically, Utah governors have appointed new members to the board as some sitting members’ terms expired or as the members resigned. Some governors have elected to reappoint sitting members but this is believed to be the first time there has been wholesale replacement of a sitting board, according to former Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell.
Asked why Cox elected to nominate an entirely new board, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the governor’s senior adviser and director of communication, said Cox supported SB146, which “reshapes the Utah Board of Higher Education, reducing the number of members and enabling the board to better focus on a statewide vision. 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.”
On Monday, the Utah Senate’s Higher Education Confirmation Committee gave favorable recommendations to eight men and women nominated by Cox. The full Senate could act on the committee’s recommendations as soon as next week.
Cox’s ninth nominee was out of the country and her confirmation hearing will be conducted soon. The student member’s appointment does not require the Senate’s advice and consent.
Among Cox’s appointees, four lead tech companies: Steve Neeleman, founder of the financial technology company HealthEquity; Tina Larson, chief operating officer of the biotech company Recursion; Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of the tech workforce development company Pluralsight; and Cydni Tetro, CEO of the e-commerce platform Brandless.
Larson is also a member of the Utah System of Higher Education’s Deep Technology Initiative while Skonnard is a co-founder and board member of the tech nonprofit Silicon Slopes.
The other appointees include Amanda Covington, chief corporate affairs officer for the Larry H. Miller Company; Danny Ipson, CFO of DATS Trucking and Overland Petroleum; Jon Cox, principal of the lobbying firm Utah Public Affairs; Javier Chavez Jr., attorney and founder of Cerveza Zólupez Beer Company; Sharon Eubank, director of Latter-day Saint Charities worldwide and former first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency; and Holly Talbot, a student at Uintah Basin Technical College.
Patricia Jones, a businesswoman and former state lawmaker who served on the Board of Higher Education for eight years, said Cox’s decision to wholly change the board is “a really good, innovative move. I hope that they know a lot about higher ed and if not, can learn quickly. It (the new board) is heavy on the business side and the tech side, which is not all bad. I actually think it might be a good shot in the arm.”
Jones said her service on the Utah State Board of Regents, later renamed the Utah Board of Higher Education under SB111, was a “heavy lift.”
“I am on several boards now and this was one of them. I spent as much time on the Board of Higher Education as I did on all of my other boards combined. It’s so much work but it was worthwhile. It was really interesting and important work but it was a lot of work. So I hope that whittling this down in half that they will be able to devote the time that it will take to improve and keep higher-ed going,” she said.
The board’s outgoing chairwoman Lisa Michele Church urged lawmakers to carefully consider the board’s size given its expanded responsibilities under SB111, passed by lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session. The legislation created a single governing system and one commissioner over Utah’s 16 public technical colleges and degree-granting colleges and universities.
“I will be honest, the number is a concern to us as a board because we do think that the effectiveness of our governance will be determined by the connection we can build with each institution,” she said.
Each board member has been assigned to colleges or universities, where they have had regular contact with the respective presidents and have attended some institutional board of trustee meetings, she said.
“Very high level (oversight): access, affordability, completion. We’re not asking them what their power bills are or any of that, but we take it very seriously that our qualitative oversight needs to be in place. We can’t just sit back and meet every other month, nine members saying ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ We have to really be in the field and talking to the campus people so I would like to see a little more, a little higher number on the board,” Church said.
Church, who otherwise spoke in favor of the bill, said she would do whatever the Utah Legislature decides. “Certainly, it’s up to the governor as far as who will be on the next board,” she said.
That’s the reality of political appointments, said Jones. “With any political appointments, these changes can happen and I think oftentimes it’s a good thing,” she said.
Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, sponsor of SB146, said opinions about board size ranged from three members up to 18.
“But we’re feeling like we need to make it a smaller, more nimble and agile board. We’re really not asking them to provide day-to-day management oversight,” leaving that to institutional boards of trustees, said Millner, Senate Majority Whip.
The objective behind the legislation is that the board “think big picture, holistically about the higher education needs in the state of Utah,” she said during a committee hearing on SB146.
A legislative audit performed after the separate governing bodies combined stated that the then-newly constituted Utah Board of Higher Education functioned “more as a coordinating board rather than a governing and oversight board. Our intent is that it’s a governing and oversight board,” Millner said.
Cox’s decision to appoint an entirely new board was “bold,” Jones said.
Jones said she did not take the decision personally “but I cannot speak for others. Frankly, I feel like we have accomplished a lot of really good things that maybe people are not aware of, like access. I’ve worked on mental health issues in higher ed and things so I feel really good about the service that I’ve been able to perform but it is a heavy lift.”