As the Utah State Board of Regents takes a critical look at the state's nine colleges and universities in comprehensive planning process, the most-oft mentioned bogyman is the Western Governor's University.
"We've not come to grips with the WGU," said Regent Pamela Atkinson. "We haven't been kept up to date. We don't know where it's going."The WGU, the brainchild of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and other western governors, was formed in 1997. Its goal is to share higher education, distance learning resources, in offering "competent-based degrees" over the Internet and other advanced telecommunications.
And some regents question whether in-state support for the WGU is waning because Utah institutions feel more out of the loop as development of a virtual university continues.
Yet, the regents believe the WGU plays a big role in their master planning process. "There is an uneasiness about this because not much is known about it," Atkinson said.
While WGU officials have on occasion reported to the regents, the board charged with overseeing Utah's higher education system has yet to have an in-depth discussion about WGU and its potential impacts.
"There will be tremendous curriculum implications for us," said Salt Lake Community College President Frank Budd.
But at this juncture, answers to even basic questions are unclear. WGU expects to roll out an electronic catalog of course offerings within the next two months.
"How many courses are in that catalog?" Atkinson asked.
A ballpark estimate offered by system and institution officials was "a lot."
The Regents are also unclear about how another Leavitt initiative, the Utah Electronic Community College, will impact the system. Earlier this year, lawmakers appropriated more than $100,000 to launch that project. Initially, it will serve Web site listings taught by all Utah community colleges.
"There is concern the electronic community college will have more impact on the WGU," Atkinson said.
The regents meet Friday at the College of Eastern Utah to proceed with frank discussions aimed at updating the state's master plan for higher education.
Considerations range from a complete overhaul of institutional funding - now driven by enrollment - to establishing tiers of tuition for different undergraduate majors.
Another idea is bumping up admission standards.
Another question to be answered is whether population growth should be handled by building more buildings, adding campuses or building new schools.
Representatives of the state's research institutions, the University of Utah and Utah State University, were charged to come up with a new funding formula proposal for all of the state's colleges.
U. President Bernard Machen said the existing setup forces the U. to compete with community colleges for new freshmen. Many students elect to go to community colleges because tuition is lower and classes, in some cases, are not as rigorous, Machen said.
"It's a huge problem to me when I hear, `my daughter wants to be a physician, but my daughter is going to Salt Lake Community College because it's easier.' That's not the way to think about it. When they get up to the U., they are disadvantaged," Machen said.
The underlying problem is the value of an undergraduate education offered by a research institution is undervalued, he said. While general education courses offered at universities are large, the payoff comes in the students' junior and senior years when they receive more individual attention.
The Regents directed U. and USU officials to issue a report on the funding reform by September.
The regents also directed all college and university presidents to assist Utah higher education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley in developing a strategy to delineate to students, lawmakers and the public the distinct role of each state institution.
Regent Ian Cumming said he believes the planning process has already been productive. "For the first time in my ten years, I can smell in the air some significant and positive change in higher education. Now if we can all put our shoulder to the wheel."