A major power of the Utah Board of Regents will be on the chopping block when the Legislature convenes next month.
A bill by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, would strip the regents of their ability to hire college and university presidents, instead giving that authority to the members of campus boards of trustees.
“The regents are still involved,” he said, “but the decision-making authority moves to the trustees.”
Fawson said he and other lawmakers believe some campus presidents have looked out for the interests of the state’s higher education system as a whole. A president’s priority, he said, should be the campuses he or she oversee, independent of sister schools within the Utah System of Higher Education.
When asked if he objects to any of the state’s current college or university presidents, Fawson chuckled before responding “not necessarily.”
“What we’re trying to do is localize the authority,” Fawson said. “We need presidents who are looking out for the best interest of their own communities.”
The Board of Regents is now in the process of selecting new presidents at the University of Utah and Utah Valley University following the resignations of presidents David Pershing and Matt Holland, respectively.
The hiring process can take up to a year, and includes meetings with campus groups and the review of candidates by a search committee composed of regents, trustees and community representatives.
That process was codified in law last year under SB238, which also changed the names of Utah’s technical colleges, shrunk the membership of the Board of Regents and amended the regents’ powers. SB238 was sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, herself a former president of Weber State University.
In a prepared statement, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler endorsed the changes enacted in SB238 but stopped short of supporting Fawson’s proposal.
“We do not believe additional changes are necessary,” Buhler said. “We look forward to working with members of the Legislature during the 2018 session on this and many other issues.”
Members of both the Board of Regents and campus boards of trustees are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Utah Senate. Under Fawson’s bill, HB122, both groups would continue to be represented in presidential search committees, with the final decision being turned over to campus boards.
The governor’s office declined to comment on Fawson’s bill.
Fawson said the original intent of the Board of Regents was to be a coordinating body. It’s proper role, he said, includes the review of tuition costs, course- and credit-alignment between campuses, grants and fundraising.
“I think they have a lot of important responsibilities,” he said. “But in the end, I think their role is really to serve the higher education institutions, not to govern those institutions.”
If approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor, HB122 would take affect in mid-May. The searches for both Pershing’s and Holland’s successors are expected to be completed before then, according to the commissioner’s spokeswoman Melanie Heath.
Fawson said his bill is not intended as a response to any president’s resignation and replacement.
“I’m not trying to rush it into law,” he said. “I just think it’s a good change that needs to take place.”