President Astrid Tuminez wasted no time working on a new vision for Utah Valley University when she arrived in 2018. It was one based in part on what she learned as a corporate executive.
While she had previously taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National University of Singapore, she also spent time at Microsoft and AIG Global Investment Group. To her, it was valuable experience. To some faculty, it was a red flag.
“They would tell me, ‘She’s corporate, we don’t trust her,’” Tuminez said.
She felt the reaction was out of touch, stemming from a misunderstanding of what the word ‘corporate’ means. Sure, universities are not businesses, and shouldn’t be run in the same way. But she also felt some arguably corporate values — like being results-oriented and accountable to stakeholders — were just the things UVU needed.
Nearly every college in the country, after all, faces some sort of existential threat. Decreasing enrollment and heightened competition from online schools and coding camps have universities on the defensive. It’s becoming more difficult to convince prospective students a college degree is worth the time and money.
Tuminez set out to change the culture at UVU, to digitize its outdated operations and inject it with “agility and competitiveness.” In particular, she set out to boost the university’s graduation rate, which is among the lowest in the country.
Just 33% of UVU students graduate with a bachelor's degree in six years. That’s about half the national average, where 64% of students who go to college graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The data reveals just one of the many ways higher education is failing its students, Tuminez said.
Yet some faculty at UVU still question her approach.
They say teaching at the university feels more like working at a company, where they have little say in major decisions on campus and are subject to what they see as increasingly ‘tyrannical’ measures.
“Faculty members are not employees,” said Scott Abbott, a professor of philosophy and integrative studies at UVU. “We all get paychecks, sure. But we also all run the university. And the tensions we're feeling right now are because it feels like administrators are trying to run parts of our university that are better left to the faculty.”
Such tensions are natural in higher education, healthy even, according to Dave Kieffer, a principal analyst with the higher education research firm The Tambellini Group. But the situation at UVU is emblematic of how difficult it can be to change a culture as entrenched and rooted in tradition as higher education.
Longstanding academic values, such as a professors’ ability to teach what and how they see fit, can run counter to the need for administrators to respond to outside pressures. And while university leaders are increasingly working to get more students to graduate, professors still see their first priority as preparing educated citizens. Both, he said, are right.
“There's a reason for the tradition and the history that we have based on the mission that we have,” Kieffer said. “And there's also a reason to look at the modern world and figure out how to adapt.”
At the same time, he’s seen a mixed track record when former corporate leaders transition into academia, and it’s clear running a university like a for-profit business simply does not work.
“It's not a bank,” he said. “It's not a retail company. There are complexities to it that are different on purpose.“
But faculty can’t shake the sense that UVU is taking a corporate turn. In particular, they say the emphasis on graduating more students has the administration looking for ways to weed out faculty they think are too tough on students.
“We get the impression that the success of the students is not how well educated they are,” said Masood Amin, an engineering professor at UVU. “It’s numbers and statistics — how many students are passing, how many students are getting A's.”
But he was recently denied a promotion, despite the approval of his department and faculty. Administrators said Amin had lower than average “student ratings of instructor” — voluntary course surveys students take at the end of a semester.
He found the decision, and the evidence cited, puzzling. He thought he should’ve received the promotion based on the criteria laid out in both his department’s and university policy. He appealed with the support of additional faculty committees, but the president denied him again.
He and other faculty say such actions are becoming a pattern at UVU, in which school leaders are cherry-picking negative comments and using them “as a weapon” against a select group.
It appears that teachers with more rigor are put on the list, Amin said. He teaches subjects like thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, which tend to be difficult for students.
“I always tell the students, ‘We are a team. I'll go out of my way to help, but I cannot study for you. And I cannot change the nature of the course.’”
Administrators, they say, are treating students like customers and pressuring faculty to keep them happy.
“You could chalk it up to different leadership styles, I suppose, but I think lots of people at UVU are feeling very resistant to what appears to be corporate strategies of management,” said Lydia Kerr, an English professor and president of the UVU chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
It’s become a big enough concern that even students are talking about it, she said. A few jokingly asked if they could get her fired in a recent class. Yet Kerr said administrators seem to mostly wave off faculty who raise the issue in meetings, dismissing them as “conspiracy theorists.”
While not everyone responds by lowering their standards, Kerr doesn’t see how it couldn’t affect what happens in the classroom. Some professors, particularly those who are part-time and have little job security, may feel like they have to give students a passing grade — even if they don’t deserve it. Kerr said she hasn’t gone that far, but she is more concerned about what her students write about her.
“I've met with students as late as 8:00 at night about their grade, when they've missed like eight classes,” she said. “In the past, I probably would have said, ‘I don't have time.’”
KUER spoke with more than 15 faculty members at UVU about the use of student evaluations. Most were afraid to speak publicly out of fear of retaliation.
Compounding the tension is the suicide of a veteran professor, Michael Shively, in 2019. He had been accused of violating several university policies, including intimidating students and employees and “arbitrary and capricious” course requirements. Several of his colleagues said the claims were made with little evidence or justification, similar to the use of student ratings, and considered his death at least in part the result of problematic investigation tactics at UVU.
His family sued, but the case was dismissed earlier this year.
Given the lawsuit, Tuminez said she couldn’t provide more details on the situation, but she was concerned that faculty do not feel supported.
She added that the student reviews are just one of many factors used in promotion decisions. Administrators look for patterns over time, she said, not a few, out-of-context comments.
Tuminez also noted that the majority of professors who apply for promotions get them. Still, she stands by her authority to override faculty committees when she feels people aren’t performing.
“It is extremely rare for the board of trustees or administration to disagree,” she said. “But it does happen. And I think that’s the right thing that should happen. We have the responsibility to be able to make some judgments.”
She said it’s part of raising the level of accountability at UVU, as she felt faculty in the past had been too lenient on colleagues that didn’t deserve tenure.
Despite the resistance, she is adamant that changes are needed at UVU. She said the university has implemented nearly every intervention possible to help students succeed on campus and complete some kind of credential, from a one-year certificate to a four-year degree.
UVU has had its two largest fundraising years in school history under Tuminez. It has expanded scholarships and reduced the time it takes to transfer credits to the university from months to days, one of the many bureaucratic hurdles that often get in students’ way. The university also created an entirely new department, an Innovation Academy, geared toward connecting what students learn in the classroom to the skills they’ll need in jobs.
Students who participate are on average 57% more likely to remain in college the following semester, according to UVU data.
Tuminez remembers her college experience as a luxurious time. She studied French and Russian literature and took way more classes than she needed. No one told her to think about a job.
But students, she said, now face more financial pressure to complete their programs in the shortest time possible. At UVU, nearly 40% are the first in their families to go to college, and 82% of students work.
Plus, part of the university’s funding is dependent on its ability to meet its enrollment and graduation goals. State lawmakers tie millions of dollars in public funds to colleges’ ability to meet certain goals, including improving graduation rates, increasing enrollment and awarding degrees in “high-demand” fields.
More than $40 million is at stake for Utah’s public degree-granting colleges for the 2022-23 academic year. UVU could receive up to $6.3 million if it can boost graduation rates, among other goals.
It’s a relatively small piece of the school’s overall budget, but a powerful reminder of the heightened scrutiny universities face.
“Unless you are sitting on a massive endowment, you have to really think about competition, about having great results, because you can only operate in so far as you have the revenue,” Tuminez said.
Integrative studies professor Scott Abbott is proud of the opportunities UVU creates for students. As an open enrollment campus, anybody can attend. But he said that doesn’t mean anyone can graduate.
“Some of them don't have the ability to graduate or don't have the discipline to graduate,” he said. “If we try to get the students through college without doing college level work, that's a really big disservice to the student.”
For him, college is still about lofty ideals — exploring your interests and becoming a more well-rounded person. He said he understands the need to prepare students for jobs, but their college education should be about more than the credential they receive — or don’t — at the end of it.