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After a surprise resignation, the Utah Board of Higher Ed has its work cut out for it

An aerial view of campus at the University of Utah, Oct. 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
Julio Cortez
An aerial view of campus at the University of Utah, Oct. 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

The Utah Board of Higher Education was completely overhauled earlier this year and now the new members — who had their first meeting in August — face a big task: hire a new commissioner to oversee the state’s higher education.

The board called an “emergency” meeting on Sept. 13 and after spending the majority of the time in a closed session, Board Chair Amanda Covington announced Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme had resigned. The board then immediately appointed Geoffery Landward as the interim commissioner.

“Movement happens and movement happens often” when it comes to higher education leadership, said Paul Rubin, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah. However, to him, "the timing of it is what's fascinating."

Rubin said it felt like the announcement came out of nowhere. During the meeting, Covington said Woolstenhulme, who was not present, was leaving to “pursue other professional opportunities,” but did not specify what that meant. That also left Rubin scratching his head.

Who the board chooses as commissioner could signal the direction of the state in terms of higher education, which includes Utah’s eight technical colleges and eight degree-granting schools.

“The commissioner for USHE serves as the state’s leader over the policies and direction of postsecondary education for all of Utah,” Rubin said.

In addition to coordinating across higher education institutions, Rubin added that the commissioner also has to respond to the needs and requests of the state government.

The new board is made up of 10 members. Several have backgrounds in business and industry, not higher education.

Within Utah’s current higher education system, Rubin said there’s already a strong focus on jobs and workforce development.

Rubin would be concerned if the board selected a commissioner who has an even more intense focus on industry and does “not recognize the value of the liberal arts, the social sciences, and the fact that all of these other areas contribute to individuals being successful.”

Chair of the Utah Council of Faculty Senate Leadership John Ferguson, who also teaches at Utah State University, hopes the board seeks out faculty input as they decide on a new commissioner and he would like to see a commissioner with a higher education background. Ferguson said he and others are concerned that the board doesn’t have any “rank and file” faculty members, although a few have some previous experience in higher education.

“We just want to make sure that there's an awareness of what faculty are going through, what's going on,” Ferguson said. “The classroom today is different than it was just a few years ago.

“Any time there's a lot of disruption, there's the potential for positive change. But it's hard to get stuff done and be efficient when there's constant turmoil and churn,” Ferguson said.

The Utah System of Higher Education has gone through several changes recently. The changes to the board’s makeup over the summer were the board’s second structural overhaul in three years. Rubin said a new commissioner could have implications for the system’s current momentum and direction.

“It's also possible that the next commissioner may come in and completely change how the system administration is set up,” Rubin said.

He thinks it would make the most sense to hire someone internally within the Utah System of Higher Education and ideally, he would want someone with a background in higher education. Since every current board member is brand new, it would be helpful to have someone with institutional knowledge and experience.

The board said that it will be conducting a national search to find a new commissioner. Rubin pointed out that Woolstenhulme served as the interim commissioner before his permanent appointment, and it’s possible the board could do the same thing with Landward.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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