Utah’s System of Higher Education: A look forward

Dave Woolstenhulme

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.

Dave Woolstenhulme, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, shares his views on the response of colleges and universities to the coronavirus pandemic, the CARES Act and the new board that will unite career and technical schools and the state’s colleges and universities. Recorded on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, James Tombs and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you have the chance to meet and hear from people who are helping the U achieve new heights. In this case, not only helping the U, but helping all of higher education in the state of Utah because our guest is Interim Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Woolstenhulme. Dave, welcome.

Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme: Thanks President Watkins. It's great to be here with you and I really appreciate the time and effort that you and your team have put into doing these U Rising podcasts. I've listened to the majority of them and they're definitely insightful and it gives us all information to be thinking about. I know it takes a lot of time, so thanks for doing this.

President Watkins: Well, we're really grateful that you would take some time to be with us today, particularly because we are in such an unprecedented time—colleges and universities around our state and, frankly, around our nation. I think as you look at this from the role of commissioner, what are you seeing in our landscape as we work together to address issues related to COVID-19 and how we can conduct our work in this time?

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: President, as you mentioned, it's very interesting time. From my perspective, what I really identify over the past couple of months is really how nimble our universities are and our colleges. I take my hat off to them for the great work that they've been able to do to make sure that education continues on during this time. It would be easy just to shut down. We chose not to do that, but it was a lot of work for our institutions to identify how do we have education continue to happen and also try to keep our students as safe as possible, being able to do that? So, obviously a lot of online classes. Moving everything to that model was not easy. I take my hats off to our faculty members as well. Being a faculty member in the past and having taught online—that's not easy and so for them to pick up in the middle of the semester and do that, it was pretty amazing how smoothly that went.

Obviously, there were a few bumps along the way, but again, they did a wonderful job being able to do that. The presidents and their teams, we couldn't sit around and wonder what was next, but you as presidents were always one step ahead of what's the next thing we should look at. So, really the role of the office has been to try to coordinate those efforts to where everybody's going down, hopefully, this same path and being able to use best practices. So again, thank you to you and your colleagues for really leading out on this in so many different ways. I sit with many of my other colleagues across the country and I can tell you in those meetings—in fact, I was on one today—I'm just very, very proud of the state of Utah and how well the education system has reacted to this situation.

President Watkins: I know I speak for the U and my fellow presidents when I say we're grateful for the way your office has coordinated and communicated with us because you always get ideas from other people and what a powerful way to learn. Maybe another area that is somewhat like that is the CARES Act. As you look at the landscape of how our institutions are able to use that funding, tell us a little bit about what you're seeing emerge.

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: Yeah. What I really liked about how our institutions are dealing with the CARES Act money, obviously a good portion of that goes directly to our students, to be able to help them with impacts that they may have had during this time and even into future semesters, to move forward. I think each of the institutions has done a really good job of thinking through that with their teams and also getting input from students and really identifying how can we best use this money to better our students, to make sure that they have continued access to education.

I know one of the big issues that you have, and I applaud you for it—not only during the time of COVID but all the time—is your pure attention to completion. That just has always amazed me how much you've focused on that and how much progress you've made in that area. Even during this period of time, I've heard you say many times, what do we need to do to get our students through and to get them to complete so they can go out and get that job and the career, not just the job, but the career thereafter? So, that's just one way, but there are many other ways that our institutions have developed to better suit students at their particular institution.

President Watkins: Yeah, certainly. I think we are really mindful that in an economically challenged period the absolutely most vulnerable place to be is somebody who did not finish their degree, so that we want to support people who have invested a lot already. I think that point about completion is due in part to a sense of our legislature's urgency in how we can think about the full post-secondary landscape in our state. Really, kind of a landmark action this legislative season to bring together our career and technical education leaders and that system with our higher education system to create one big board. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the impetus that happened to drive that forward from your perspective, and then a little bit about how the new board might function.

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: Yeah, absolutely. I really do think it's a major advantage to the state of Utah. Obviously, as most people know, it's really operated in two different units or two different organizations, if you will. Along with the tech colleges, eight technical colleges throughout the state, within the system of higher education there are eight other institutions, including the community colleges all the way through the University of Utah with our research institutions. But the legislature, in conversation with many, made a decision this last legislative session to bring that into one unit and to really focus on workforce.

I think that's really critical, and I think the thing that we'd want to express to the legislature, my colleagues, and to others, is workforce has always been somewhat alluded to in the past of technical education, but workforce to me goes from a welding certificate all the way up to our Ph.D. students because we're hitting all levels of the workforce and every one of them are just as important as the other.

But having them under one umbrella, if you will, with one board and one commissioner that's overseeing those 16 institutions really is going to give us an opportunity to make sure that we are hitting on every one of those different areas in workforce and providing a skilled workforce. That does lead to completion because it helps us to get students in the right pathway, but it doesn't become this competition thing between the different organizations. But it really gives us an eye open to say what's best for the student and what does the student really want and what is their intention? Then, hopefully get them in the right pathway from the very beginning. As we do that, I think we'll see completions increase across the entire system, and at the end of the day that's what we want. We want what's best for our students, and that is to be able to find successful careers and somewhere they enjoy being, regardless of what that looks like.

President Watkins: Yeah. Such important points. I agree completely that, as I look at this, we all share the same goal of raising post-secondary completion and attainment to meet the needs of our state and our vibrant economy. As I understand it, the organizational structure will be that the career and technical colleges will each retain a leadership role in the system office and then report up to one commissioner. Do I understand that correctly?

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: Yeah. So, what the statute calls for, it's very similar to what we have now already with the Board of Regents. We have different committees that we work with during the off months of committee meetings as well as the committee of the whole. So, what the statute calls for is a technical education committee, and then for a committee of higher ed. So, those focused on those two committees will really be focused on the workforce in those particular areas. But then I also see a really important gap there that's going to need to be filled between the connection of those two committees. We've hired Jess Gilmore in our office to work with our institutions to pave a pathway for those AAS degrees and certificates that are going from AAS degrees into certain bachelor's degrees at our institutions where it makes sense for the workforce.

So, there will be the separate committees, but we definitely don't want those idle. We want those committees working together at certain times to make sure those pathways are there for students so they can start a certificate and may end up being a Ph.D. student at some point. So, the connectivity all the way through is going to be very important.

President Watkins: It does seem that that goal of seamless pathways and a menu of options, depending on your interests and best fit, is such an important thing. Certainly, I know that, as we have thought about higher ed, we've focused on the aspects of both affordability and completion as being really important elements that we're all driving toward. Do you see this coming together as enabling the goal, particularly the affordability goal, since we talked a bit about completion?

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: My opinion is that students should have access. That doesn't mean that every student has to be able to be admitted into a program at the University of Utah or at Utah State University. But what it does mean is students should have access to opportunity to continue to learn. That might mean starting in the community college. That might mean starting at a tech college. That might mean several different areas that students may have a desire to go into. But I do think the affordability is something that we'll continue to look at, we'll continue to focus on, and I do think by having the systems together, it does give that access that we want for our students.

What I'm finding more and more is we have always been in this mindset that there's only one pathway for students in higher education, and more and more I'm beginning to have a true understanding that there's many pathways for students and it's not linear at all. It can go all over the place to see where those students end up. The biggest thing for me is the students have options and then our students have that access that we're talking about.

President Watkins: Yes. I think Utah's economy has had such a wonderful vibrant period and one of the elements of that has been the diversity of our economy. So, we've had growth in need in areas as broad as welding and construction and the trades all the way up through master's and Ph.D.s in science, engineering and health professions. So, this common theme of raising attainment across a wide spectrum, and maybe there's a place in this menu for worker retraining and lifelong learners coming back to our institutions. Do you see a role for this combined organization there?

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that we know is the jobs of the future are going to be much different than jobs we have now. Somebody that's working in a particular field today is probably going to be outdated tomorrow. So, definitely retraining, retooling as we refer to it a lot, definitely going to need to be a part of what we do. That's something our institutions, even at the research institutions—and I know you've done a really good job of this with some of the things that you've been doing, President, at the University of Utah— will do is really looking at that skill set and what is it that employees are going to need in the future. Then, give them some short-term training types of things that compliments their degrees. It doesn't take away from it, it compliments those degrees, but it gets them into a place to where they just become better employees and definitely more employable as opportunities move on.

I think we have to do more of that and not less. I think we're going to have to start thinking differently, maybe than whatever we've done in the past, of how do we retool? As we look through this, hopefully the economy doesn't slow down too much, but as we get through this COVID and we've already seen a decline in the economy a little bit, what are those individuals who are laid off now, where are they going to come back and want to go to work? I think we're going to have to make sure that we have the right programs available that do line up with our industry needs to be able to help spur this economy as we do get back on the normal trend.

President Watkins: Yes. Commissioner Woolstenhulme from the Utah System of Higher Education has been my guest today on the U Rising podcast. Commissioner, I would really agree with you that maybe now more than ever, the role of higher education and career and technical education in our state is going to be vital to help guide us through this difficult period. Thanks for taking the time to be my guest today.

Commissioner Woolstenhulme: Oh, you bet. Thanks for having me, and, again, thanks to you and your team for all the things you've done. You've really helped lead out during this very difficult time and that's very much appreciated. That gives me confidence in my chair to have such great colleagues like yourself.

President Watkins: Well, we certainly appreciate the work you do as a leader in our state. Listeners, thank you for joining us today for the U Rising podcast, and I hope you'll tune in for the next edition. Thank you.