Kristin Murphy, Deseret News archives
Mishka Palmer waves to the crowd at the Western Governors University summer commencement ceremony at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 12, 2014.

A few years ago a high Utah official was asked, “Why is Utah moving forward faster than other mountain states, such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming?” He replied, “Three reasons: The University of Utah, Utah State and BYU.”

There are many more factors at work with respect to Utah’s growth than our three largest research universities, but there is no question that Utah’s determination to build significant institutions of higher education has played a major role in our forward progress. It began with the founding of the University of Deseret in 1850 and we are justifiably proud of it.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. In one area particularly, we are falling behind the rest of the world - STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). There aren’t enough math and science teachers in our elementary schools, where a student’s interest in math and science must begin – many schools don’t have even one - so we are not graduating enough STEM students to meet the needs of the global high tech economy.

Fortunately, there is a fully accredited university in Utah that is doing more than any other institution in the country to solve the problem. It is Western Governors University (WGU), the brainchild of former Governor Mike Leavitt. Most Utahns have never heard of it, even though it is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Governor Leavitt created it by convincing governors in 18 other western states to join him in building something new. From its website we learn how it works: “WGU uses an innovative approach to learning called competency-based education, which measures learning rather than time spent in class. Students earn their degrees by demonstrating mastery of subject matter. Designed to meet the needs of adult learners, competency-based education allows students to take advantage of prior learning and experience to move quickly through material they already know so they can focus on what they still need to learn.”

The attractiveness of this opportunity for teachers who need higher-level degrees but cannot afford to spend more time in college classrooms is obvious. Again, from the website: “WGU offers 20 undergraduate- and graduate-level teacher preparation programs, with licensure available in all 50 states. WGU is the first exclusively online university to earn accreditation from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) for its teacher preparation programs.”

Starting from scratch 16 years ago, WGU’s growth and success have been spectacular. It now has 49,000 students and 37,000 graduates in all 50 states. In the process, it has become the country’s largest provider of math and science teachers.

But WGU’s contribution to solving the STEM teacher shortage has not been limited to just the number of teachers it has trained. After reviewing 2,400 different secondary teacher preparation programs across the country, The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) named the one at WGU Teachers College the best in the nation (the equivalent of awarding it a BCS title if it had been a football team.) In addition, NCTQ ranked WGU’s elementary teacher preparation program as 16th in the nation, making WGU one of only 10 institutions to receive ranking status on both lists. WGU is not only turning out the most math and science teachers, it is turning out the best ones.

So, University of Utah, Utah State and BYU, make a place for another institution of higher learning to join you on the stand as one that has brought high honors to our state — WGU. The kind of innovative thinking that created it will continue to keep us ahead of the pack in the turbulent years ahead.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.