The commissioner of higher education for Utah announced Tuesday that he will step down after helping to appoint new presidents — many of them women — at the state’s eight public universities.
David Buhler’s retirement after seven years as commissioner comes at the tail end of that major shuffling, with four leaders being named at Utah colleges just this past year. The newest — Bradley Cook, who will lead Snow College — was appointed this month, and the longest-serving — Southern Utah University’s Scott Wyatt — came on board in 2013, roughly a year after Buhler’s tenure began.
Buhler proudly helped manage the searches for all of the new leaders in between, too, putting in place the first female presidents at Utah Valley University, Utah State University and the University of Utah. Due to quick turnover at two universities, he oversaw a total of 10 appointments, four of them women.
“This is a historic occasion,” he said with a smile at U. President Ruth Watkins’ inauguration last year.
Buhler will leave his position at the end of 2019. He has spent the past 19 years with the Utah System of Higher Education. Before that, he was a state lawmaker.
“My family and I concluded it’s time to begin a new chapter in our lives,” he said Tuesday in a statement. “I believe change is good for organizations and individuals.”
When he was named commissioner in June 2012, Buhler said: “When I started as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah 22 years ago, I never would have imagined my career would have wound up here.” Now, he noted, in another surprise, it will wind up back there, where he will return to teaching political science as he did from 1990 to 2006.
Watkins applauded the move Tuesday and celebrated Buhler’s tenure as commissioner: “His work as a higher education leader has improved individual lives and advanced the collective good.”
Buhler oversaw higher education during a boom in enrollment. As of the latest count, there are now almost 184,000 college students in the state. That’s nearly the population of Salt Lake City.
He has focused on managing that growth — at times struggling to handle the influx with increasing tuition rates and access issues for low-income students. His office took heat for not better overseeing the rising cost of attending college in the state last fall, and he promised to restructure the system for approving hikes.
“Funding access for all students, meeting critical workforce needs and helping more students successfully complete college are critical to our state’s future,” Buhler said Tuesday.
He has also worked to put together a strategic vision for higher education — which includes more students completing degrees — and lobbied at the Legislature for more funding for buildings and scholarships. His most recent initiatives have focused on putting advisers into high schools to help students plan for college.
The Board of Regents, which oversees higher education policy in the state, will begin searching for Buhler’s replacement in the spring — a process similar to the one he led in finding so many presidents for Utah’s colleges.