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The Utah Board of Higher Education is undergoing its second structural overhaul in three years in an ongoing push to centralize the oversight of the state’s 16 public institutions. The latest effort will reduce the board from 18 to 10 members and prioritize promoting academic programing focused on economic and workforce development.
The shift, outlined in a measure signed by Governor Spencer Cox in March, amended a previous law that established the structure of state higher ed governance. The new measure follows a 2022 audit that determined that the current governing body “does not fulfill its statutory authority to ‘monitor, control, and supervise’ the Utah System of Higher Education.”
Senator Ann Millner, who sponsored the proposal to streamline the board, said her hope was to establish a more nimble, agile governing body with greater clarity of its roles and responsibilities and increased accountability.
“The audit really gave us the capability of assessing how we were doing,” she said. “Our goal had been all along to have the board be more strategic, to provide governance and oversight at a much bigger picture level.”
The amendments also:
- Requires the board to provide the state Legislature an annual data report on the system’s quality, affordability, workforce alignment and operational efficiency.
- Expands the duties of the system’s Commissioner of Higher Education to “better assist the board” in executing its strategic plan.
- Instructs the board to establish shared services among the system’s colleges and universities to reduce spending on Title IX compliance, admissions, informational technology and human resources, and other services.
- Allows the board to consolidate or terminate programs deemed ineffective or inefficient following a review once every seven years.
Representative Karen Peterson, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said students would be better served as a result of these measures.
“By focusing on an efficient and streamlined system, students are benefited with lower costs and institutions whose programming allows for students to seamlessly move between them,” she said via email. “I want Utah’s system of higher education to be relevant, affordable, and an asset in meeting Utah’s economic and quality of life objectives.”
These moves come at a time when state higher ed systems across the country are facing enrollment declines and are under pressure from state lawmakers to produce measurable student outcomes. Some state systems are also consolidating their campuses, while others, like Utah, are centralizing oversight of their systems.
The changes also are occurring against the backdrop of the increasing politicization of some governing boards by state governors and a growing public debate about the value and need for a college degree. Kevin P. Reilly, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin system and a senior consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, said he believes while politics can sometimes play a role in such decisions, Utah’s decisions are clearly being driven by prioritizing the workforce and economic development needs of the state.
“Any structure can work depending on what the state and its leaders, and hopefully the people of the state … want at any given time from their higher ed system” he said. “In some ways, it’s always a move toward greater or lesser power at the central level … depending on what’s happening in that state,” he said.
The Utah board was last revamped in spring 2020, when the state’s eight traditional degree-granting institutions and eight technical colleges, previously governed by separate boards, were merged under one system.
Although two overhauls in a relatively short amount of time is atypical, the general concept of re-evaluating and restructuring a governance system is not.
“Bottom line, this is not an unusual move by Utah. It’s in line with what’s going on in many other places,” Reilly said.
Mary Fulton, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, tracks state restructurings nationally and developed a method to categorize their systems of governance in a 2019 analysis. She says the patterns aren’t necessarily straightforward with “nice, clear trends.”
“It’s common for policy education leaders to propose and sometimes adopt minor to significant post-secondary governance reforms for various reasons," she said. "These reforms can be complicated and take time to implement.”
The state systems now in place have morphed over time, influenced by state history, politics, culture and the nuanced needs and desires of its constituents, she and others said.
“I think the key thing to know about the state of Utah is that by and large, and historically, we’ve been a very institutionally focused state, meaning that the institution has most of the power and decision-making,” said Paul Rubin, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah.
Rubin said that although the recent restructurings were designed to establish more centralized authority, the board still doesn’t have as much day-to-day influence as institutional level decision-makers or the Office of the Commissioner.
He also noted that many of Utah’s institutions already prioritize state workforce goals.
“It fits very much with how Utah as a state has come to view higher education, and just views higher education generally, which is that it’s to support the economy and support the workforce,” Rubin said. “In some ways, this was a solution that they were trying to go for without actually having a problem to attach it to.”
John Ferguson, president of Utah State University’s Faculty Senate, said faculty members appreciate state lawmakers’ interest in improving higher education oversight, but they also hope the restructuring is viewed as an opportunity to ensure faculty have a voice in the process.
Faculty will continue to push for “more—really, any—faculty representation at these decision-making levels,” Ferguson said.
“We run into the problem where people who weren’t involved in higher education tend to default into seeing higher education as merely job prep, or trade school,” he said of board members and state lawmakers. “The function of higher education, many of us believe, is that it’s to prepare citizens and to prepare the next generation.”
The state audit does show there’s room for improvement on student outcomes, however.
When compared to peer institutions, the University of Utah, the state’s flagship institution, and Utah State University, its land-grant institution, consistently ranked below average in retention and graduation rates from 2016 to 2020, according to data collected by the auditor general. The two institutions' low rankings reflect a pattern of performance below that of peer colleges and universities across the state, with the exceptions of Salt Lake Community College, which had a higher graduation rate, and Snow College, which had higher retention and graduation rates.
“It’s not enough to say, well, we have great access to people in the state of Utah,” Reilly said. There is an increased emphasis on questions like, “Do they progress in a reasonable amount of time, through your institution? Do they graduate from that institution in a reasonable amount of time? And do they get out with skills that are useful in the marketplace?”
Kyle Beltramini, a policy research fellow with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, described many recent boards as “sleepy,” not actively in tune with institutional performance.
“It’s good to see that some of these boards are being poked and prodded to fulfill their institutional and their statutory, fiduciary responsibilities,” Beltramini said.
Utah’s efforts to improve system efficiency and promote economic development are not only reflected in changes to legislation, but also in the governor’s nominees.
All nine of the nominees were affirmed by the Senate Education Confirmation Committee on June 5 and by the full Senate on June 15. (There’s also a student nominee whose position does not require committee approval.) They are scheduled to take office July 1.
“It’s clear from the appointment of business leaders that the governor wants the board to focus on the state’s economic and workforce development needs,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
“From the governor’s perspective, a board overhaul provides a unique opportunity to appoint the full board instead of replacing one member at a time. This can lead to higher education priorities that are closely aligned his agenda.”
Beltramini said he sees Utah’s move as a bipartisan effort to strengthen higher ed, and “that’s exactly what we’d like to see.”
Reilly, the former president of the University of Wisconsin system, is more circumspect about what he sees as “unfortunate” increased involvement by governors in selecting nominees to state boards and said “higher ed has been caught out in the political division of the country.”
Fulton, the consultant for Education Commission of the States, said more board consolidations such as Utah’s are possible elsewhere, and she predicts the changes will likely be driven more by local workforce needs than politics.
“We possibly could see some additional examples of consolidation,” she said. “Utah has spent a few years really evaluating what makes sense for their state … and in the current environment … as they look down the road, it seems to be driven by the demographic changes that were happening in the state.”