State leadership is critical to Utah's future
Utah's legislative leaders and governor are appropriately proud of Utah being recognized by the Pew trusts as the "best managed state in the Union." Utah has a good bond rating, produces balanced budgets and watches every dollar very closely. Well done, managers!
While praise for good management is deserved, it is more important that decision makers are also leaders.
As Hugh Nibley, former Brigham Young University scholar and theologian, opined about two decades ago, too much emphasis on management instead of leadership can be a "fatal flaw" in civilizations.
The Utah legislative process is particularly difficult to watch this year because too often it seems the desire to manage outweighs the desire to lead. The next two weeks will determine if the Legislature and governor will lead or just manage the state. Leading may require making difficult decisions to invest in the future.
Leadership calls for a maximum effort to protect education from cuts that weaken the quality and access to education services. Utah universities and colleges are attempting to deal with 24,528 more students than two years ago. At the same time, legislative leaders started the session by calling for a 22 percent reduction in the state budget for universities from 2008.
The governor, recognizing the importance of education to the state's future, is recommending no further cuts to education budgets beyond those already implemented (about 9 percent).
New revenue estimates may mean the Legislature will not cut as deeply as originally planned, but so far, leaders are tight-lipped and no new plan has been announced. I am hopeful legislators will take into account this first good economic news.
However, if their original plan is enacted, the difference with the governor's budget for higher education is an additional 13 percent cut or $93 million. This additional cut would deny education to thousands of Utah citizens.
At Salt Lake Community College, it means a reduction of 1,880 sections and the denial of educational opportunities to approximately 4,700 students. At Utah Valley University, 372 class sections would be closed and 930 students turned away. Throughout the state, we estimate that implementing the legislative plan would deny access to 9,410 Utah residents.
This would occur at a time when Utah citizens are enrolling in colleges and universities in record numbers. Last week, we announced the largest one-year increase in enrollment in the history of Utah higher education. In addition, citizens are borrowing money in record amounts to attend college. My office annually serves 96,000 students who borrow $500 million each school year.
We know that there is an almost perfect 1-to-1 relationship between the state's per capita income and the percent of the state with a college degree. It is clear that education is a commodity that the public wants and the state needs.
The issue is leadership vs. management. Management advocates tell our institutions to do more with less, manage better, furlough employees, reduce advisers, get students through the system faster and generally streamline the system. Ironic arguments, given that Utah is already the most efficient system of higher education in the country, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management.
Leadership requires a vision for and a commitment to our future. We need to fund students wanting to improve themselves. This includes having facilities to teach them. The state needs to borrow money to build and improve the infrastructure of education. We need to think about our future.
Higher education leaders support the governor's budget. We support it for two reasons.
First, it will not force us to reduce access in order to preserve quality. Second, the governor understands the long-range consequence of further cuts to education. He is looking beyond this year and asking how Utah can position itself for a bright future.
The final weeks of the legislative session will determine the degree of willingness to lead or if management dominates decision makers' actions.
William Sederburg is Utah commissioner of higher education.
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