The U’s economic impact on our state

Juliette Tennert

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.

The University of Utah has a sizable impact on the state's economy—from jobs to research funding to societal benefits. Juliette Tennert, director of economics and public policy research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, provides a sneak peek at a new report the institute will issue this month on the U's economic contribution. Recorded on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Thanks to Andrea Smardon, Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. This podcast gives us all an opportunity to meet the great people who are part of helping the U achieve new heights. My name is Ruth Watkins. I'm the president of the university and today my guest is Juliette Tennert.

Juliette is the director of economic and public policy research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Now, I know Juliette fairly well, but I'm guessing some of my listeners don't. So, Juliette, I'm hoping you'll tell people a little bit about your background and about your role at the Gardner Policy Institute.

Juliette Tennert: I'm a native Idahoan. I've had stints in Chicago and Nevada. I came to Utah to work for the Legislature, thinking it would just be a couple of years thing. Fifteen years later, I am a true-and-true Utahn. After working for the Legislature, I became the chief economist for Gov. Jon Huntsman and then the state budget director for Gov. Gary Herbert. After that, I had the opportunity to come to work as the director of economic and public policy research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, which is part of the David Eccles School of Business here at the University of Utah. That's kind of a mouthful!

It's just been an amazing experience. I was an adjunct instructor for the U, started in 2010, and so when the opportunity with the Gardener Institute came up, I just jumped at it. I'm so happy to be a full-time part of the U family here. At the Gardner Policy Institute, I work with some of the best and brightest research analysts in the state and also incredibly impressive student interns and graduate assistants. We provide economic, demographic and policy research that hopefully informs decisions being made in our state.

President Watkins: So, Juliette is very modest and she's not mentioning that she's an economist from the University of Chicago.

Juliette Tennert: Yes.

President Watkins: For anybody who knows about economics, we know that is really the epicenter of economic leadership. It's quite a privilege to have you here as part of the University of Utah's team.

Juliette Tennert: Thank you, president. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

President Watkins: Well, I understand that this month the Gardner Policy Institute will be releasing a study about the university's economic impact on the state of Utah. Could you give us a sneak preview of that report?

Juliette Tennert: Yeah, sure, sure. We've been working on this report for the better part of a year, so I am so excited to start sharing some of the results. As someone who studied the Utah economy, right, I was in that chief economist role. I was in that state budget director role. I had to think about revenues coming into the state. I've always known what an important economic asset the University of Utah is. But when all of these numbers came together, even I was actually really surprised to see the magnitude of what we're doing here. We've found that when we include components like the Research Foundation and ARUP, and then everything else that happens here at the University of Utah, the University of Utah enterprise employs almost 40,000 people, which actually makes the U the largest employer in the state.

That was not on my radar before. Our research traces how the university spurs additional economic activity through the state. In addition to those 40,000, we indirectly generate over 83,000 jobs and are responsible for $6 billion in state gross domestic product, GDP. For the non-economist, that's basically the value of what's produced in an economy.

And so, for me those are really big numbers, but to put them into perspective for folks who are not inside the numbers day in, day out like economists are, that job count is approximately equivalent to the whole population of Ogden. And if the University of Utah were its own county, it would be basically the fifth largest local economy in the state. Basically, an economy that's greater than the economy of Washington County. Really big numbers.

President Watkins: I would say as the president of the university, I had no idea that the economic reach was that broad. Maybe we could talk about the pieces of that study. For example, we're so proud of what we've accomplished recently in terms of our research profile. Right now, we know that this past year the University of Utah generated nearly $550 million of external research funding, which I think has a big impact on our economy.

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely. That research funding is a really important piece. And as economists, we're always on the lookout for activities that are bringing new money into the state. You have the new money come into the state and there's a multiplier effect. So, it truly, truly, helps to grow the state economy. And research funding is the perfect example of that. The ultimate benefit, of course, of this research funding is the innovation and knowledge that it creates, and it makes everyone's lives better, but there's an immediate boost to the economy. It supports thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions in income and purchases in the state, and those purchases just ripple through the economy. Let me give you an example.

There's a lab employee putting their education to work, doing great research. That employee gets paid wages and she goes and spends those wages in the economy, which creates more jobs and then more jobs. And then the lab is purchasing equipment from Utah suppliers. And so that, in turn, creates more jobs and more wages. You can see how you bring new money into the state, it just ripples through and makes the state economy greater.

We've found that the U is actually kind of rare among its peers in terms of how it's positioned to bring this research funding into the state. And if you look at, for example, University of Utah Health and what's going on there, the co-location of this world-class research university and this large vibrant medical center, the co-location just leaves us really well positioned when we're looking at bringing research projects in. This is not something I had known—in our research, we found that there are only two dozen or so institutions like ours in the U.S. So again, we're so much more competitive for those dollars because of that.

President Watkins: It's a really important point that one of our unique features is the fact that we have a full academic medical center on a comprehensive campus and we are together physically, where many of our peers don't have all those assets. It positions us well. And maybe we could talk a little bit about U health.

Juliette Tennert: Yes.

President Watkins: Because we are very proud of our role as the flagship research University of Utah. We're equally proud of what we contribute as the University FOR Utah. U Health makes that happen in their care delivery and clinical operation. My guess is that has an impact on Utah's economy as well.

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely. After studying the U's economic significance broadly, we did take a deeper dive into U of U Health, including all of the health schools and colleges, institutes and centers, clinical and lab operations. And so, in addition to supporting just that piece, supporting a significant part of our state's economy, nearly $4 billion in GDP, that's about 2% of the state GDP, over 47,000 jobs. So, trying to make that equivalent, it's basically the population of Herriman—major economic activity. But there are three things that really stick out to me that highlight this University FOR Utah role.

We are Utah's health care workforce engine. Let's look at numbers. We are training, at any given time, well over 5,000 health sciences students, granting like 1,500 degrees to health care professionals every year. We are generating Utah's health care workforce.

The reach of the U of U Health clinical operations is really incredible, too. As part of our research, we're trying to kind of get a handle on where we are in Utah. We've got a presence in 26 cities in our state and University of Utah Health services approximately 2 million patient visits every year. Two million! Think about that. The population of Utah is a little over 3 million, we've got 2 million patient visits per year through our U of U Health operations.

And then finally, No. 3, U of U Health serves both the local and the global community. So, examples. Over $200 million in uncompensated care in 2019, over 24,000 patient visits for incarcerated youth. Major support for our community. And then globally, participation in over 80 global health projects and more than 40 countries in 2019. So certainly, that really underpins our role as the University FOR Utah.

President Watkins: Yes, that's very helpful. Juliette, do you think the quality rankings we've achieved in U of U Health have had any influence on that economic impact?

Juliette Tennert: Sure, absolutely. And again, part of our research was just bringing all of these numbers together in one piece and the rankings really just signal quality, they signal opportunity and that really is what is there for economic growth. The U of U Hospital is ranked as No. 1 in the state, but then pull out, look at it nationally, U.S. News & World Report has ranked U of U Health in the top 10 for quality for 10 years running and ambulatory care top five for ambulatory care for five years running.

So those two rankings, we're actually the only health system in the U.S. to hold those two rankings together, which shows you the significance of what we're doing here in Utah. Among public universities, our School of Medicine ranks really well—No. 2 in the physician assistant program, No. 14 for primary care, and No. 15 for research. Again, what this means for the economy is we're drawing talent and money into the state, and then what's going on with that is making the state even better. And then finally U of U Health is nationally ranked in three adult specialties—ear, nose, and throat, gynecology and cancer.

President Watkins: Wow.

Juliette Tennert: Yeah!

President Watkins: We do believe these things have an influence on U Rising.

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely, absolutely.

President Watkins: Beyond health and research, of course, our profile includes arts, entertainment, athletics. Do those activities have an impact on Utah's economy?

Juliette Tennert: Yes. So, this is an area that we sometimes don't really realize supports the economy. I mean, it's all good stuff and we enjoy all of it, but it brings money into the state. Every year events at the U draw thousands of visitors into Utah, so visitors to students, visitors to patients. Cultural event attendees, athletic event attendees, even conference participants. All of these people are coming into Utah, visiting the University of Utah and these visitors are spending money on food, they're spending money on lodging and all sorts of other purchases, and, again, those purchases ripple through the economy just like any other activity at the University of Utah.

There are so many examples, but one example and an event that will draw visitors from out-of-state and generate a lot of national attention, too, for Utah and the University of Utah is the vice presidential debate that will happen on campus in October, right? That might not be in Utah, if not for the University of Utah.

President Watkins: We've been very focused on helping our students complete their degrees and made big strides in that area over the past decade. That's been a huge focus of work and I believe certainly that that's both an individual good and a public good. It's certainly raising individuals and families and it is contributing to Utah's workforce and the availability of talent that our industry needs.

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely.

President Watkins: Does your report capture the economic impact or the return on investment that may be a bit more indirect to Utah’s economy?

Juliette Tennert: Sure, sure. What you're talking about is just so large, it's really hard to quantify it. So, we put together the numbers that are associated with the day-to-day operations of the university and they're really impressive. They're large numbers, but they're certainly only part of the story of this incredible economic and social asset that the U is to the state. Our economy, it would just be fundamentally different without the U of U. Obviously, we're training the workforce and a well-trained and skilled workforce helps Utah businesses to grow and expand and also draws business into the state to take advantage of that workforce. You can trace Adobe's roots back to the University of Utah, right? So not only would the Utah economy be fundamentally different, arguably the world economy would be fundamentally different. Adobe roots back to Utah, Huntsman Cancer is at the forefront of cancer research. I mean, the examples are just so numerous.

The university—it changes lives. And we know that there's empirical research that shows that individuals with higher educational attainment, and quality health care is a piece of that, too, earn higher wages, they experience longer and happier lives. And those effects are individual, but they transcend generations. And so our report gets at the economic significance at the U through operations, but it's just impossible to quantify really how all of what we do here means for the economy.

President Watkins: I hope what you're telling me is that my incessant focus on college completion—little did I know I was having an influence on Utah's economy!

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely.

President Watkins: I'm so pleased to hear that because I know that it benefits the individual and their families.

Juliette Tennert: Absolutely. Absolutely.

President Watkins: We look forward to your report. It's called “Economic Contributions of the University of Utah.”  Tell us about how we can find it when we're ready to read it.

Juliette Tennert: Sure. Well, it's been so fun to give you a little sneak preview. We're just tying everything up. We're dotting the I's, crossing the T's. The report will be available at our website, So, keep an eye out there.

President Watkins: Juliette, we're fortunate to have you as part of the University of Utah team. Thank you so much. Listeners, thank you and read that report about the economic contributions of the U! Thank you so much.

Juliette Tennert: Thank you.