A majority of Utahns support a bill that would put campus boards of trustees in charge of hiring college and university presidents, a power currently held by the state Board of Regents.

A new poll shows 51 percent of respondents in favor of the proposal, with 20 percent opposed.

But 29 percent answered “don’t know” when asked about the legislation — House Bill 122 — signaling that more people are uncertain about the change than oppose it. Those numbers suggest a lack of familiarity with Utah’s higher education system, according to Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“This poll suggests that there’s a good portion of the population that just doesn’t know what entity is responsible for selecting the president of a university,” Perry said. “Many people do not realize that is the job of the Board of Regents.”

The poll, commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, was conducted between Jan. 15 and 18 by Dan Jones and Associates. It includes responses from 803 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

HB122 — introduced in the House two weeks ago and still awaiting its first public hearing — is sponsored by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden.

Fawson said the bill is intended to promote local control by having a president hired by the body that most directly oversees that particular campus community.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, as seen Jan. 26, 2018. Fawson is proposing a new bill— HB 122 — that would put campus boards of trustees in charge of hiring Utah college and university presidents, a power currently held by the state Board of Regents.

“They’re competent individuals who were selected to serve on those boards [of trustees],” he said. “... They could be entrusted with this task if the change is made.”

But Nolan Karras, current chairman of the Weber State University board of trustees and a former member of the Utah Board of Regents, opposes the bill.

Having served on both boards, Karras said there are advantages — particularly for the state’s smaller colleges — to regents being part of a system that oversees higher education for the entire state.

“If you do away with the regents hiring the presidents,” he said, “you do away with the system.”

Ruth Watkins was named the 16th president of the University of Utah in mid-January. Searches for the next presidents of Utah Valley University and Weber State University are in progress.

When a new president is needed, state law requires the creation of a search committee composed of trustees and regents, as well as other campus representatives.

But the final determination is made by the Board of Regents, and Karras said the process has proved effective at appointing excellent presidents for Utah’s public colleges and universities.

“What’s broken?” he asked. “What in the system is broken that we need to make a change?”

David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education, echoed those concerns. The Board of Regents has experience and staff to assist in nationwide candidate searches, he said, which are not necessarily matched by campus boards.

“Just like anything,” Buhler said, “there are some natural advantages that come from doing things more than once.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, speaks at the inauguration of Deneece Huftalin as president of Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.

He also said it’s beneficial that those hiring decisions be made by a body with a statewide perspective. Campuses are funded at the state level, he said, and enroll students from throughout Utah and beyond.

“We do oppose this bill,” Buhler said. “We think it is unnecessary and would be detrimental to even having a System of Higher Education.”

Fawson plans to continue pushing HB122 during this year’s legislative session, which ends March 8. But he said negotiations are ongoing and the bill could be altered to call for a study of higher education governance instead of a restructuring of that governance.

“We may want to take a longer period of time,” he said.

The poll results show that Utahns are interested in local control, said Fawson, who called for a wider conversation about how decisions are made in the Utah System of Higher Education.

“There’s generally confusion about higher education structure,” he said. “I’m sure that’s probably where the majority of your ‘don’t know’ votes came from.”