The U’s Board of Trustees: Its duties and role in the presidential search

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Since its inception, the University of Utah has been overseen by a governing board—though that board and its duties have changed over time. Today, the university is governed by a Board of Trustees, chaired by Christian Gardner. In this episode of the U Rising podcast, Gardner provides an overview of the board’s duties, his role in the search for the U’s next president and describes feedback the presidential search committee has received about the qualities and priorities the next president should possess. Recorded on March 4, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get the opportunity to meet the people who are helping the University of Utah achieve great things. My guest today is particularly special and important—the chair of our board of trustees, Christian Gardner.

Now, a little history on this. We just celebrated the 171st anniversary of the founding of the University of Utah. That happened on February 28, 1850. Since that beginning, the university has been overseen by a governing board. First, it was the Utah Board of Regents and, in 1969, an institutional council was formed. Then, more recently in 1991, the first Board of Trustees was established. That board governs the operations of the University of Utah today.

I know that you community listeners out there probably know some members of the Board of Trustees, but I'm guessing you know less about what that board does. Today, my great privilege to have as my guest on the podcast, Christian Gardner, who is the chair of our Board of Trustees. Christian, warmest welcome to you.

Christian Gardner: Thank you very much, President. It's a pleasure to be on your podcast.

President Watkins: Well, Christian, I think listeners would want to know a little bit about you, the person—your professional life, your history at the U, and maybe if you're willing, a little bit about other ways you serve our community.

Christian Gardner: Sure. I'd love to. I attended the University of Utah, received my bachelor's degree in political science, graduated in the mid-'90s, had a wonderful experience. Loved it. And I grew up within a couple of miles of the university. I've always been a lifelong fan and supporter of the university, so it's actually been a great honor to be able to serve on the Board of Trustees and help and give back to an institution that I felt really helped me in my life.

Professionally, I went on to out of state for graduate school, and then I came back to Utah and work for . . . well, run a family company that we specialize in real estate development and renewable energy development. And it's been a great experience. We get to work on some really fun projects throughout the state. Some of our more notable buildings that you'll see is we developed the Adobe building at the Point of the Mountain, the Pluralsight building in Draper, the Mountain America Credit Union building in Sandy and others. And right now we're in several states working on large-scale wind and solar projects. We have a passion for sustainability and we're pushing more into that direction.

And so professionally, that's what I spend my time doing. We have offices in Utah and Boise and quite a few people in San Francisco and Washington and other places. And then personally, I love the outdoors and reading and history. That's a brief summary. I'm married with six kids.

President Watkins: Christian, I want to just ask a question about the renewable energy part of your work and portfolio because I think you know how important that is to our campus community and our students, who have been so passionate about moves the University of Utah has made. During your time on the board, we've taken some really historic steps on long-term arrangements to shift our portfolio toward renewables. As a leader, both in your own work and in raising a family and thinking about the future of Utah, how do you see that whole renewable effort fitting into the university's future from the chair you're in?

Christian Gardner: Well, maybe even to back up a little bit more, part of my interest and what got me interested in renewable energy was a class I took at the University of Utah, and it was an environmental studies class and global warming and climate change was starting to be talked about way back then, but I believe it was more just getting me interested. It started the wheels turning in my head and it took a while to get to a point where I could throw myself into the work.

But I think as I look at where it's going as a country and as Utah, you definitely do see the trends. You see it being led out right now, in the last few years, really by large corporations that are continuing to push for more sustainable programs within their companies and bringing energy and less reliance on fossil fuels, and the University of Utah has done a great job. We've signed some solar projects. We have a big geothermal project and recently, president, you can help me, but we just received — is it a five-gold star?

President Watkins: Yes, we've gotten national recognition for our campus leadership in sustainable energy and renewables, and really just efficiency in this area. I know of all the topics I hear about from students, and we'll get to this in a little bit, but as you think about the presidential search for the next leader of the institution, I know this is an important topic and we're so lucky to have you in the chair you're in because you have firsthand knowledge in this really important future area.

I also think, while we're talking about history, the amount of change that has happened in my lifetime in this area is pretty remarkable. Things that people did not think would be possible now are. So, I applaud what you're doing in your work and professional life and how that informs your leadership.

Speaking of leadership, I bet listeners wonder how does somebody get on the Board of Trustees? A lot of people would like to be on the Board of Trustees—or at least they think they would before they might know exactly what trustees do—but tell listeners a little bit about that experience for you. How did that happen and how long have you been on the board?

Christian Gardner: Well, I've been on the board for six years, I believe. Board members, there are 10 trustees, eight of whom are appointed by the governor. And our names are submitted, or he asks and names are submitted, but we're appointed by the governor. The two other board members represent the alumni association and it's also the student body president of the university. So, there are 10 board members and we do go through a governor appointment. And then I believe it goes over to the Legislature’s Senate for ratification, for a vote on it. And that's the process.

We serve four-year terms. And I'm trying to think if it's—I know at times, it may have been one four-year term. I think right now we're in the time period where you can serve it a two four-year term process, so I'll be terming out, so to speak, here in a couple of years and the governor will appoint someone new. But in a way, we're here to represent the community for the University of Utah's interests, to oversee the operations of the president and to make sure that we're really a conduit between the community and the university.

And you mentioned it earlier in your opening statement, president, when you said, "Many of you may know a member of the Board of Trustees" and that's really what we're for. Not many people know people at the university in administration. They have questions, concerns or recommendations or anything. And really, the Board of Trustees are there to be a voice in the community, to represent the community as a public institution and make sure that it's going in the direction as outlined by the Board of Higher Education, by the Legislature, by the people and also the president and bringing all those things into harmony, into one, and overseeing that. I mean, there are other roles and functions and I can get into, but that's a look at it.

President Watkins: That is, I think, a really great way to look at the responsibility of being a trustee, that you are representing community members of all kinds, constituents and stakeholders. And, of course, you and I have worked very closely together on a number of things related to the institution's well being, direction, future, finances, who's in leadership and moving various projects forward that are of strategic importance to the university and to the people of this state.

I know personally that one of your responsibilities that's front and center right now is helping to identify candidates for the role of next president of the University of Utah. Chair Gardner is co-chairing that search for the new president with Harris Simmons, who is the chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education. The search committee's already had, I think, three public hearings, maybe more than that, to gather input from stakeholders. Really wise on your part to ask and to listen to what people think is important. Tell us about what you're hearing that people are looking for in the 17th president of the University of Utah.

Christian Gardner: I will. And one thing to maybe talk about is what you mentioned, the public nature of this. We really want to make sure that we have a public and transparent process and that we receive input from a diverse group of people in the community. In this process, we publicly announced the search committee. It's made up right now, I believe we have 28 individuals. We have four from the Utah System of Higher Education, four trustees, we have four at-large community representatives, and then the rest is made up of individuals from within the University of Utah, representing various colleges, faculty, deans, et cetera.

What we're hoping, and we make the search committee public, and we hold public town halls. They're virtual right now, where we try and solicit input on what do people—currently, what are their priorities? Where would they like to see the university go? What is important to them? What's their vision? And just get this feedback so that we can take it and help select a president that reflects that input.

And one of the things we've noticed, president, and it's very complimentary to you and the great job you've been doing, is a lot of people are very happy with the trajectory of the University of Utah. They love that the research and grant dollars are going up. They love that graduation rates are increasing, that student success has been a focus and they want to see that continue. And I think a lot of people that have gotten on with the town halls are getting on to make sure I don't propose anything that'd be wild and crazy that would take us from the direction we're going, and we've received just a lot of really good feedback on we want to keep going in this direction.

A lot of it is what you have put in place—admittance into the AAU, that that's really important, and how can we in this pandemic and changing nature of education, how can we continue to be not just relevant, but thrive and continue to have degrees that work for the workforce, that put people out in the workplace that they can be successful and how can we continue to be an economic driver in the state? Those are a lot of the things that we hear and. again, building upon what you've put in place.

President Watkins: Really sounds like you've heard some wonderful themes and a lot of great ambition from people about continuing to be the U rising and think of what are the actions we take now to ensure a long-term vibrant future not just for the university, but for the people who serve most importantly. That's exciting. Tell listeners a little bit about what happens next in the search process and whether there's opportunities somewhere along the way for people to have voice again or how this works.

Christian Gardner: Well, certainly, as I mentioned, there is the search committee and they're able to contact any of us individually or through the—I'll call it the USHE office—the Utah System of Higher Education, and that's where the public can put input if they haven't participated in the public town hall meetings. But the next steps are a search firm's been created. We're putting together the guiding document or so to speak, the job description, what we're looking for and that'll be going out and the search firm will help us identify potential candidates that meet those criteria.

And we put together a calendar, but we're really looking that over the next four or five, six months, we'll interview candidates for this job and select. And when we have that selection, we'll make the individuals public, they will then go meet with various constituency groups, community and other groups within the university, and then a final recommendation will be given to the USHE board for approval. Along that way, there'll be some opportunities to weigh in when a finalist is announced.

President Watkins: Very good. Well, thank you for all the effort and time to conduct a really comprehensive and strong process. That's a very powerful opportunity and such an important one. I do know that there is a presidential search website established and people can refer to that if you would like more information, and likely that also, that website would provide some direction if anybody had a nominee that they wanted to suggest the search committee consider. Thanks so much for running through that, Chair Gardner, and maybe even more for assuming the role as co-chair of that important search.

Christian, you and I have worked together on lots of things over the past six years. Really, most of my time here at the University of Utah, you've been closely connected with what happened with the Board of Trustees and the progress of the university. I'm so grateful to you personally. I'd love to hear from your view, what are some of the highlights of your time on the board for the past six years, things that are noteworthy to you that you're proud of and that maybe speak a little bit to some of the areas you hope we can continue to advance and make progress in as we look to the future?

Christian Gardner: Well, I hope to not be too repetitive, and I do want to say thank you. The pleasure has been mine. I've been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at the U, to participate. There's so many great dedicated individuals, such as yourself, that what's really surprised me, has been noteworthy is how invested you and your team are in the students and in student success. And really, everything I've noticed has been about what can we do to help the students have a better experience, a better education, have a degree? How do we get them through with less debt? How do we keep tuition down? And I've really appreciated that.

That's been one of the noteworthy things. And in that, there's so many things in there, but we've sat through tuition discussions. We've sat through ways on how student debt can impact the student over the long term. How can we keep those things down? I look at what admittance into the AAU does for the university in terms of degree appreciation and how that will help continue our trajectory of bringing in bright leadership and professors and teachers that all the students benefit from. Those are big, noteworthy things.

I look at the emphasis that we've had on the physical components of the university, of the buildings and creating buildings and classrooms that represent more the way of learning in a 21st Century, technological world, that we learn differently, and we need buildings and classrooms that reflect that. And I look at how through the pandemic, we've been able to shift to an online component and we're continuing to make investments there to make that more accessible to others that maybe haven't been to school for a while and continuing that education.

And going back to your theme that you brought in, the one U. It's the University of Utah for Utah, and there's so many components to that, but how it reaches others that maybe don't have the time to go full time, but they can access the university and benefit and get a degree. There's just been so many things like that. Those are some of the noteworthy ones that come to mind. I could talk for a long time about some of the great accomplishments that I have seen just in my short timeframe.

President Watkins: I have to say, listeners, I really want you to appreciate this fabulous servant of our community in our board chair, Christian Gardner. Christian has been a partner in all of those efforts to truly transform lives with the power of higher education, the impact of research in our lives and what it means for Utahns. Listeners, thanks for joining us today for this really special conversation with the chair of our Board of Trustees, Christian Gardner. Christian, my warmest thanks to you.

Christian Gardner: Thank you, president. Thank you very much.

President Watkins: You're a stellar colleague and a fabulous leader for our community and our state. Listeners, I hope you'll join me for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.