Last spring when the Board of Regents was looking for a new president for Utah Valley Community College, one of the five finalists, who was from Oklahoma, withdrew his application after visiting Utah.

It wasn't that he didn't like the state. He told Commissioner Wm. Rolfe Kerr that he didn't like what he read in the newspapers about the tax initiatives. He said having suffered in Oklahoma from cutbacks forced by falling oil prices, he didn't want to step into another job where he might again be required to slice programs.While tax initiative supporters say the cuts could be absorbed without damage, Kerr says the reaction by the Oklahoma official is typical of feelings of national education leaders. When he attended a recent conference with other state higher education chiefs, his New Hampshire counterpart wondered aloud about what was happening in Utah. He'd read about Utah's tax initiatives in the New Hampshire papers.

"He said the people of New Hampshire can't imagine what's happening in Utah. This is why I'm saying it will have a devastating impact on the image of Utah's higher education," Kerr said.

But it's more than applicant withdrawals and image problems that has Kerr worried. He's concerned about how to slice $34 million, or 13 percent, from higher education's state appropriation. The regents have said repeatedly that such a large cut would necessitate turning away 8,000 to 10,000 students from the 75,000 in Utah's nine colleges and universities and raising tuition 25 to 30 percent.

The system's nine institutions include the research universities, the University of Utah and Utah State University; the four-year colleges, Weber State College and Southern Utah State College; and the two-year community colleges, Dixie, Snow, College of Eastern Utah, Utah Valley Community College and Salt Lake Community College.

Included in the downsizing of the system would be the elimination of courses or programs throughout the system. College closures have been mentioned, although no institution has been targeted. However, it is the Legislature, not the regents, that makes the ultimate decision on college closure.

Actually, no "hit list" has been drawn up for programs. And it hasn't been decided if the cuts would be across-the-board. Kerr said it's possible that higher education might even have to take a bigger budget cut if public education couldn't handle its reduction.

The commissioner said the information being distributed from the regents isn't a scare tactic, as tax limitation proponents have charged. "These aren't idle threats. We've reaffirmed them as we've studied it several times."

He said although tax protesters have accused higher education officials of resorting to scare tactics, none has ever visited with Kerr or his staff to study the figures.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook has consistently singled out higher education, particularly the University of Utah, when delivering his cost-cutting message. Cook said you don't need to meet with the regents to be able to read the higher education budget.

He and tax-limitation coalition spokesman Lee Allen disagreed that higher education will be skewered by the tax initiatives. They praised the Governor's Report on Cost Effectiveness in Government, which they say shows that a lot of that shortfall could be saved at the University of Utah alone. (Cook, however, said he doesn't agree with the $34 million figure; he believes the cut would be $28 million.)

About $15 million to $20 million of those savings can come out of increased teaching loads, the tax-initiative supporters and the government report said.

For months, Cook has hit at the U.'s teaching loads in speech after speech, saying U. faculty members teach six credit hours a week. He said the savings would come from raising those teaching loads to nine hours. Increasing the teaching loads is also one of the major recommendations in the controversial section on higher education in the cost-effectiveness in government report.

The candidate also charges that the university claims credit hours that don't exist. He said the U. claims 245,000 total credit hours while he calculates 203,000 total credit hours as the average of fall, winter and spring quarters. He said the U. just uses fall quarter figures to arrive at its calculations.

"I wouldn't make such a big deal about teaching loads, except it's so important to the cost structure of the university. It's just like production output rates at an explosives plant," said Cook.

"They're talking about cutting 8,000 to 10,000 students. That's 4,000 at the U. alone. If they'd only get those hours up to nine, they could let 4,000 come in on the tuition they're paying. I don't want tuition to go up. Let them run the university for the students, not the faculty," Cook said.

Dr. Anthony W. Morgan, U. vice president for planning and budget, said Cook's six hours is an estimation, and a wrong one at that. The same figure was contained in the governor's report, but there was no documentation to support the claim. The claim was disputed by the accountants who studied the report.

Although he has never discussed the calculations with Cook, Morgan said the probable methods to arrive at those calculations rely on multiplying the number of 18,120 FTE (full-time equivalent) students by the average number of student credit hours of 11.2. That equals Cook's figure of approximately 203,000 total student credit hours.

But Morgan said there is no need to estimate student credit hours. It is reported directly as raw data to the regents, Legislature and governor. For 1987-88, the total number of student credit hours was 735,561 or an average of 245,187 a quarter. The U. official said if the university had only relied on fall quarter data, as Cook has said, then the credit hours would have been 265,000.

He said the estimation method contains several flaws. It mixes data, using full-time equivalent students, which include undergraduate and graduate students, and average credit hours of 11.2, which is for headcount undergraduate students. (A full-time equivalent student is defined as an undergraduate student with 15 credit hours and a graduate student with 10 credit hours.)

There also seems to be a misunderstanding about credit hours. Only about 50 percent of the credit hours are actually 50-minute classes, while the other 50 percent are seminars, discussions, labs, internships and directed readings, which average 80 minutes, Morgan said.

However, Morgan said, the estimation method using the reported raw data errs in the U.'s favor. It would have a teaching load of 8.4 credit hours. In U. internal reports, the teaching load is listed at 7.8 credit hours, he said.

Morgan said teaching load comparisons with other institutions get tricky because there is no national reporting source, but generally, community college faculty teach 13-15 hours, four-year college faculty teach 10-12 hours, non-research intensive university faculty teach 9-12 hours and major research university faculty teach 6-9 hours.

Morgan and U. President Chase N. Peterson said raising teaching loads above these general norms would hurt the U. in competing in the national market for faculty.

It's the nationally prominent faculty who attract the research grants, the U. officials said. The U. gets $110 million in state funds annually, but multiplies that into $510 million using other sources, mainly research grants.

Peterson likes to point out that the neighboring University of Wyoming gets $90 million from its state but has a total budget of only $150 million.

"Utah's option under the rollback is to become a University of Wyoming," Peterson said.

Next: What are the predictions for Utah's rural colleges under tax limitation?.