In our opinion: What the U. needs now

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

As the Utah Board of Regents met last week, they undoubtedly began weighing how to replace Michael Young as president of the University of Utah.

Under Young's leadership, the U. achieved measurable outcomes that have been considered traditional hallmarks of success at large state universities: increased academic selectivity, improved research funding, growing private support, upgrades to intercollegiate athletics and relatively harmonious relations with the Legislature.

It will be hard to find someone capable of leading the diverse portfolio captured in a large state university, especially given academia's strong preference for specific academic credentials over management expertise.

As the regents consider the organizational leadership required to meet the higher education needs for Utahns going into an uncertain future, we would ask them to consider whether they need someone to replicate the current model or whether they require a pioneer.

For the foreseeable future, funding for the current model of higher education will be increasingly tenuous. Even as the economic need for post-secondary training intensifies, the discretionary funding for higher education and the government sponsored research that often supplements higher education will find itself competing against non-educational entitlement programs.

Although we do not question the importance of post-secondary training generally, we are beginning to question what it is that higher education subsidies are actually purchasing. Are they purchasing first-rate instruction? Or are they paying for research that may not be relevant? Hundreds of thousands of unemployed recent college graduates and their families are certainly wondering whether their student loans went to fund a quality education or to fund someone else's research.

So as the regents think about who could provide leadership to the U. during a decade in which the current model of higher education will be increasingly scrutinized, challenged and perhaps dismantled, let us suggest a non-exhaustive set of criteria to consider.

The ideal candidate's first priority should be students. The university exists first and foremost to develop the capacity of Utah's high school graduates to become the most thoughtful and best qualified contributing citizens in the nation. Consequently, the ideal candidate will want to improve the lives and abilities of the increasing number of students coming out of Utah's high schools instead of increasing the selectivity of students attracted to the U. nationwide.

And if she cares that deeply about those students, the ideal candidate will make it a priority to increase the U.'s graduation rate. Currently, only 22 percent of students at the U. (about one-in-five) will graduate in four years. After six years at the U., only 58 percent will have graduated. The opportunity cost (foregone time and income) imposed on the 78 percent of undergraduates who linger around the Utah campus for more than four years is enormous; for the 42 percent who linger more than six years it is unconscionable.

(By comparison, consider the graduation rates at the U.'s self-chosen peer institutions; these ten universities average a four-year graduation rate of 47 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 72 percent.)

The ideal presidential candidate should be able to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the university. The U. should be championed as an institution of extraordinary accomplishment, not a career stepping stone. Candidates should appreciate and embrace Utah's unique heritage and its tremendous long-term potential.

In order to achieve meaningful educational results for more Utahns while preserving the U.'s flagship status within the Utah System of Higher Education, the next president will have to embrace unprecedented technological and organizational innovation. Each finalist in the search should have a clear a track record of successful change management.

This idiosyncratic list of qualities comes from our observation that higher education is a field ripe for innovative cost-reducing changes, efficiencies and technologies that will overthrow the current dominant model for educational delivery. Accordingly, the Board of Regents should anticipate how to manage and embrace those efficiencies and technologies before they happen instead of playing catch-up. This year's quest for new leadership creates the opportunity to embrace the future and become a leader for educational innovation.

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