SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a budgetary setback and a small sense that lawmakers may have overstepped their bounds with the Board of Regents, higher education in the state of Utah fared better than officials had thought it would at the outset of the 2010 Legislature.
"We really feel good about the outcome," said William Sederburg, Utah's commissioner of higher education. Aside from a 13 percent total decrease in base budgets, he claimed several victories for the system, including a late move by lawmakers to approve the construction of three new buildings on three of Utah's fastest-growing campuses — a science building for Utah Valley University, a student commons building for Southern Utah University and a much-needed classroom building for Salt Lake Community College.
"Those buildings will enable us to meet the growth and enrollment needs we're having on those campuses," he said.
In addition to new buildings, which were not easy to come by in a low-budget year, the Legislature found money to fund New Century Scholarships for more than 1,800 Utah students, although not at the full 75 percent of tuition, but at least two-thirds of what students would have otherwise had to come up with on their own.
Approval for a merger of Utah State University and the College of Eastern Utah was a "huge victory," and a long time in the making, Sederburg said. The state also found $500,000 to help fund the transition, which will help toward marketing and branding the new USU-CEU in Price.
"We appreciate the desire of lawmakers to keep higher education in southeastern Utah, and we appreciate the additional educational opportunities this brings to us there," said CEU interim president Mike King.
Lawmakers questioned whether other small schools within the system might be ready for a similar switch, but Sederburg said the most likely one — Snow College in Ephraim — "is in fine shape financially, with enrollment booming," which illustrates "no real need" for merging with another institution at this time.
SB52 reorganizes the structure of the Board of Regents, ensuring that the entire state is represented by rural appointees, and limits the number of appointments from metropolitan counties to six. A provision contained in the same bill mandates that the regents approve an electrical engineering degree at Weber State University, which Sederburg said is inappropriate for lawmakers to do.
"I don't think it's appropriate for the Legislature to get into that level of micromanagement," he said. The regents originally received application for the degree from Weber on Feb. 23. Lawmakers say it would aid Hill Air Force Base with its employment needs.
While many measures could could have adversely affected the Utah System of Higher Education, including a bill eliminating affirmative action for higher education and another that could have turned away hundreds of immigrant students paying in-state tuition, as well as potential on-campus gun legislation, Sederburg believes institutions came away mostly unscathed.