John Florez: Let regents govern higher education

Published: Saturday, July 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Oh no, not another "degree to nowhere."

The state senator who keeps complaining about "college degrees to nowhere" is raising questions about the Utah Board of Regents' decision to approve a degree in ethnic studies.

Which again raises the question, who is in charge of higher education in the state — the governor, legislators, the Board of Regents, all of the above or none of the above?

Since the governor appoints members of the board with the consent of the Senate, you would think the board could be trusted with carrying out its mandated duties. Under Utah law, the Board of Regents has the power to govern the state's system of higher education, including the approval of all programs throughout the system.

So why do legislators continue to publicly question decisions and usurp powers of the board? These are the same lawmakers who complain about federal government interference. They ignore regulations, ordinances and the power of legislative boards on a whim.

In April 2010, Dr. Anthony Morgan resigned from the board because he believed lawmakers had usurped the board's authority. Lawmakers ignored a three-year study done by the board, along with a panel of experts, that denied Weber State's proposal to expand its engineering technology program to a general engineering program. The Regents determined that it was not needed since Utah State University had a good engineering program one hour's drive from Weber State.

Lawmakers from that region sprang in to action and passed a law establishing the program anyway. Gov. Gary Herbert went along and signed it in to law.

Such blatant use of power by politicians overriding legislative boards renders them useless and costly, and it violates the peoples' trust in government. Boards are created so that matters can be studied carefully with the public's trust and common good in mind. When that trust is violated by lawmakers sworn to uphold the law, our system of government begins to break down. Furthermore, it is demoralizing and demeaning to the regents to dismiss their decisions without good cause.

It is remiss for a lawmaker to complain about the regents' decision to determine the need for a specific college degree to be available; that is the regents' responsibility, which they take seriously. Anyone who has worked with academicians knows about the lengthy deliberations, studies, reviews and exhaustive process. The board has a long-standing review procedure for approving degrees that responds to faculty input, accreditation standards and student demand, or market forces. They run it through procedures that make the Rubik's Cube look easy.

For lawmakers to overturn or complain about the regents' decisions shows a lack of trust and respect for the work they do. They take their charge seriously and understand the challenges the state faces in assuring Utah maintains the highest standards in higher education. Comments by lawmakers who glibly say some degrees are "going nowhere" show the low level of understanding they have about how the world keeps changing dramatically; the degrees they see as important today may not prepare students for jobs yet to be created.

Albert Einstein's words are more prophetic today than ever before: "A society's competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity."

The ethnic studies degree might be timely as we prepare students to use their creativity and understanding in navigating a flat and interconnected world. Maybe the regents know something lawmakers don't — maybe that's why they were appointed.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Senator Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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