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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland looks over the view at Christ Church while on a sabbatical at Pembroke College, Oxford University, England, on June 14, 2017.

OXFORD, England — Britain is baking. On the corner across the street, passengers perspire as the sun pours through the open windows on the top of a red double-decker bus. Summer dresses are everywhere.

This might be the worst heat wave England has seen in 40 years, but on this late afternoon in June, Matt Holland looks as cool as a Utah October evening in a tweed jacket, slacks and a white shirt open at the collar. He's just strolled up St. Aldate's Street from Pembroke College and stopped on this street corner, where he has run into an American he knows and a new acquaintance.

The new acquaintance tells him that his surprising decision to leave what he calls the best job in Utah, the president's chair at Utah Valley University, for a summer sabbatical at Oxford University appears to agree with him.

Holland smiles broadly, comfortably. He looks up and down the four streets converging on this corner. Hundreds of tourists, native Oxonians, professors and students bustle past. He peers up at Carfax Tower looming just behind him. Built here in the 1100s, the tower's name comes from Latin and French terms for crossroads, not from the company that peddles reports on the histories of used cars.

Holland's eyes twinkle. "I can't say I'm not giddy about the whole thing," he says.

Spending a summer as a senior associate at Oxford University, studying, writing and walking where some of his heroes — John Locke, C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman —studied, wrote and walked, has exhilarated Holland's academic soul.

Next week, he'll make a presentation about UVU at Parliament, because some Brits think Utah Valley University has something important to say about the future of higher education and the divides revealed by President Trump's election and Brexit. Beyond that, what is Utah's and UVU's return on investment?

If Holland delivers a report about what he did on his summer vacation to the Board of Regents when he returns, he'll talk about the intense English interest in UVU's vocational education, the academic paper he wrote, the book outline he created, the donors he courted and how he nurtured UVU's expanding relationship with Oxford.

"This summer has been as rewarding as it possibly could have been," he says.

UVU in Parliament

Holland is now in London, where he will spend the final month of his sabbatical. He spent May and June in Oxford. He has found himself surprisingly popular in both places because he is the president of the rare American university that offers robust vocational education alongside liberal arts.

Why does that matter? Holland's visit to England is timely. Brexit created widespread worry that more than 2 million skilled laborers from other European Union countries might leave the United Kingdom, opening a massive vocational skills gap in the workforce. The concern starts at the top. In January, Prime Minister Theresa May issued an industrial white paper calling for a major overhaul of vocational education in the country.

"There's a real spirit of reform in the air right now," Holland said. "I'm unexpectedly impressed with the intense interest in the UVU dual model. I thought in Oxford I'd hear, 'Why would you taint your university with this vocational education?' Instead, I've been seated at high table for dinner a few nights."

On Monday, he'll be seated in the House of Lords in Parliament for a panel discussion on current international challenges to educational reform. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is co-sponsoring the event by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs. Holland's father, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke to the same group two years ago.

Holland can draw on his own dual identity as a man descended from Irish coal miners and an academic with advanced degrees from Duke and a past fellowship at Princeton.

Other members of the panel will include the president of the University of Sheffield, which boasts an Advanced Manufacturing Research Center; an education expert for the Church of England; and the author of a book on the populist revolt.

"Politically, educationally and culturally there's this interest," Holland said. "There's an interesting thesis out there right now that some of the divide over Brexit is like the divide in the United States over President Trump. A blue-collar trade-and-technical crowd versus the white-collar crowd. The problem is that we are educating them in such different ways. The power of the UVU model is we've got the trade and technical people taking an English class with students on their way to four-year degrees."

Dual Model

Holland made a presentation on the dual model system in May at Oxford's Rothermere American Institute titled "Utah's Answer to Prime Minister Theresa May's 'Credible Alternative' to the Traditional University."

"I have a huge amount of admiration for what UVU (has) done," said Nicholas Cole, a British professor of American History and the history of political thought at Pembroke College. "It couldn't be more different from the Oxford model. We have our pick of the best students in England. We are in the best way elitist in our admissions."

Utah on the other hand needs an open admissions institution with access to trades and technical education, Holland said. He and Cole wouldn't recommend it for every institution, and certainly not for Oxford. UVU is model. Launched in 1941 as Central Utah Vocational School to meet the demand for skilled labor in the World War II effort, UVU shows that the cost-effective way to meet the growing needs in U.S. state and British college and university systems is to reinvigorate vocational education at schools that have had it.

Cole works with UVU students and credits the dual model for UVU's energy and student quality. He is impressed that Utah and UVU recognize the diversity of the school's model as a real strength rather than as an impossible challenge.

"It's a Utah model that's catching on nationally," Holland said. "It needs to be articulated and written about."

"I think it's the future, isn't it?" said Eamonn Molloy, a tutorial fellow in management studies who shared his Pembroke office with Holland. "Particularly if people can cycle between the two tracks. It's good for employers, and it's good for education. There's a changing labor market, from one that has been largely service-based with low skill to one with a demand for high skill. The boundary between highly skilled and academic has blurred, and here's a dual system that makes sense explicitly."

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland, right, laughs with colleague Eamonn Molloy during his sabbatical at Pembroke College, Oxford University, England, on June 14, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When he became UVU's president in 2009, Holland believed that UVU needed to be built into a great university, but didn't need to replicate Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. "I developed an early conviction that we didn't need to and shouldn't do it at the cost of this robust commitment to vocational education," he said.

Eight years later, he has learned important lessons.

One, he said, is that "the vocational ethos has made the university side a little more practical and responsive to the real world. I love Locke, the liberal arts, etc., but some institutions need to be practical." Another is that there is an important tension between the two sides of the model.

"We've got to get that balance right, to get vocational students to look more academic and get academic students to look more vocational."

Fish in water

History is unavoidable here. Oxford is the oldest English-language university in the world, with teaching beginning as far back as 1096. Holland spent May and June at Pembroke College, one of Oxford University's 38 constituent colleges and founded in 1624. The window in the office he shared with Molloy frames Tom Tower, built by legendary British architect Christopher Wren as part of Christ Church College in 1682. When Holland wanted a change of scenery, he used his special pass as a senior associate to study amid the incomparable stacks of invaluable old manuscripts and books in Duke Humfrey's Library, built in 1487.

"This is a place that just inspires you to do your best," Holland said.

This is how an academic grows giddy, especially one who served a mission to Scotland for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who was a faculty adviser at BYU's London Center when the UVU president's job opened.

Holland, who mimicked Jefferson in grad school by waking at 5 a.m. to study, flipped his schedule in Oxford due to jet lag and late sunsets. He often worked until 1 or 2 a.m. Most of his days were spent reading, writing and researching, exchanging ideas and walking Oxford and learning its history.

When he wasn't rubbing shoulders with today's Oxonian intellectuals in Pembroke's lunchroom, or walking where John Wycliffe, Sir Thomas More and Adam Smith walked, he felt the gravitational pull of St. Philip's Fine and Rare Secondhand Books.

"Don't tell my wife," he told a visitor he brought to the cramped shop, "but I was here yesterday and spent $100" on five, white-gold-leaf volumes of English poetry and Alfred Edersheim's "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah."

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland visits one of his favorite book stores in Oxford, England, on June 14, 2017. Holland is on a sabbatical at Pembroke College, Oxford University. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The following day, he confessed to an impromptu trip to the other end of Oxford, where he shopped at Blackwell's, which has 125,000 books for a sale, including a room certified as the world's largest single display of books.

Scholar at work

He brought along a project he'd started at BYU before he took the UVU position, a study of letters exchanged by Jefferson and Madison in which they considered the question of whether their children and grandchildren would be as free as they were. Some of their thoughts were based on John Locke's thinking at Oxford in the 1600s.

"Those thoughts were worked out in these very hallways and alleyways," Holland said.

Cole, the Oxford American history professor who has worked with UVU students, described Holland as part historian, part philosopher, part political scientist and part public policy analyst. All of those characteristics emerged when Holland spoke about Jefferson and Madison, drawing parallels to current events.

Jefferson, who had been saddled with his father's debts, worried U.S. debt would encumber the freedom of upcoming generations.

"Jefferson and Madison are saying that the current generation has to think about future generations," Holland said. "They have to make sure they are not running up such massive debt, for example, that future generations have to pay for what previous generations did. That's an issue we are facing today. What are we passing on to future generations and will our kids and grandkids be as free as we are because of the choices we are making. They were asking questions that were fundamental and vital but are even more important today."

He gave a speech on the letters at Oxford on June 7 in which he mentioned his concern that debt can undermine funding for higher education. The political philosopher avoided pronouncements about policy but said analysis of history can help benefit the shaping of current policy.

"I do think there is an important set of theoretical ideas that should be driving more of our debate than it is right now, that could inform that debate, enrich it, shape it, so we can get to positions that are more responsible in our day and age."

The response to his lecture on the letters convinced him to turn it into a submission for an academic journal. He spent hours on that paper in Molloy's office and Duke Humfrey's Library. He also created an outline for a book on the subject.

"It's so hard to do that as an administrator," he said. "You can't dash off an article for a peer-reviewed journal. It's not an easy thing to leave the university for three full months, but fortunately we have a remarkable team. My fear is they're doing it so well I won't be needed when I get back."

The scholarly work in Oxford was intended to refresh his skills. It did more than that for a president of a university growing as fast as UVU. The school is projected to reach 45,000 students in 2025, a 61 percent increase from the start of Holland's tenure.

"For me, I just think it's so important as a president to be reminded all the time what it is we're about," he said. "Your day gets so consumed with bridges and buildings and tax funds and the legislative session and dining services and athletics. All those things are important and need to be done, but presidents need to remind themselves we're about teaching, we're about ideas, we're about the intellectual project of inquiry and investigation.

"Seeing how that's done in a first-rate way is reinvigorating my sense of what it means to build out a great university and the kinds of educational and academic values that need to be front and center."

Benefiting UVU

Holland peppered his Oxford days with projects benefiting UVU.

"One of the very exciting and unexpected developments in my role as UVU president is the relationship with Oxford," he said.

That relationship began when he was invited to speak about the leadership of Lincoln on a panel for the university’s Seminar in Constitutional Thought and History in 2015. He displayed panels from UVU's massive stained-glass project, "Roots of Knowledge," at Oxford in 2016. Meanwhile, Cole began his project involving UVU students.

It all led to the invitation to spend Trinity Term, a summer term, at Oxford. He spent time cementing the ties between the schools and working to add to them.

When Holland wanted to ask a donor to sponsor a scholarship program to link UVU and Oxford, he hosted a small lunch for him at The Eagle & Child, the pub where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings used to share their unfinished manuscripts, including "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia."

On June 22, he spoke at Oxford Brookes University on Biblical charity and the making of America at an annual Ecclesiastical History Colloquium. He's been asked to join the Oxford Character Project.

He also visited a group of UVU students creating a coffee table book on the trail of the legends of King Arthur as part of a project based on the school's engaged learning model.

But he made sure not to allow work to overwhelm his awe for the birthplace of the Anglo-American university system. In mid-June, he led a reporter and photographer through Pembroke's famed, green quads and up a narrow, old stairway to the office he shared with Molloy. He took off his tweed jacket, sat down with old Tom Tower framed in the window over his shoulder and described what Oxford meant to him.

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland works in his office at Pembroke College, Oxford University, England, on June 14, 2017.| Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"For one who believes in the power of higher education, and the utility and richness that can come from that, to be able to be here at the birthplace of it all, in the warp and woof of everything in and around the town, and the architecture and the cultural practices, is just very energizing," he said.

"I walk into this town and I just want to read and think and talk to people. It just motivates you to do that. There is a special quality to this town and to this institution that just draws out a kind of an energy and an excitement and a determination to learn as much as you can learn and to grow as much as you can grow. That's what I've loved about this more than anything, that atmosphere and what it does to your commitments to learning and to growth."