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St. George • After eight years at the helm of what is now Utah Tech University, President Richard “Biff” Williams is proud of how far the institution of higher learning has come and says the controversy over the school’s name change hasn’t held the school back.
On July 1, Dixie State University was renamed Utah Tech over the heated opposition from some longtime residents and others on social media sites like the Defending Southwest Utah Heritage Coalition on Facebook, some of whom accused state legislators who mandated the name change and university officials of going “woke.”
Despite the furor, Williams said the name change has proved to be a good thing thus far.
“There’s always going to be that 10% who are still upset with things and will continue to chip away online,” the president said. “But I’d say the majority of [people] have been extremely supportive.”
Some numbers seem to lend credence to Williams’ assertion. Attendance at school events remains high and donations to the university are up roughly 33% over last year, from $2.7 million to $3.6 million, which Williams says indicates most people realize the name change was necessary for the school to move forward in its quest to become a national regional university.
Indeed, a lot of numbers have been trending in a positive direction since Williams became the institution’s 18th president in 2014, a year after then-Dixie State College became a university. There are now four master’s degree programs, up from zero in 2014. Bachelor’s degree programs have more than doubled over the same time frame, from 23 to 56. The same goes for associate degree programs, which have jumped from 10 to 21. The university has also added its first clinical doctorate in occupational therapy.
Enrollment is also on the upswing. It currently stands at 12,556, up 50 percent from the 2014 fall semester, when the institution welcomed 8,341 new students to campus. Moreover, the number of buildings on the 110-acre St. George campus has gone from 49 to 60 and now covers 1.75 million square feet.
“You come on campus now and it feels like a campus, it feels like a university, ‘’ Williams said from the comfort of his office in the diminutive Atkin Administration Building, which is dwarfed on the north and south by the Eccles Fine Arts Center and Human Performance Center, respectively.
In 2016, the university opened the Atwood Innovation Plaza in the former East Elementary School, which is now a hub for fledgling entrepreneurs and budding businesses.
“We’ve had about 65 businesses crank out of there,” Williams said. “And we’ve had over 100 patents approved and more than 200 submitted by students, faculty and staff.”
Moreover, the university used $15 million allocated by the Legislature to buy 183 acres west of St. George Regional Airport, where the goal is to create an Innovation District on part of the property where students can rub shoulders with innovators and business leaders and get hands-on training and educational experiences. It is also projected to generate $100 million or more in economic activity, according to university officials.
Matt Devore, former student body president and now director of Student Outreach Services at the university, says much of the credit for the school’s rapid rise is due to Williams and his leadership.
“I’m amazed at his work ethic and his vision, and how he is able to turn that division into reality,” Devore said. “To me, that’s the number one characteristic of leadership …, to make that vision and reality and create buy-in from everyone.”
That vision might have been deemed delusional by some when Williams took over in 2014. Some, both on and off campus, considered the college to be more of a glorified high school.
They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s 13th grade if you go to Dixie College.’ Well, that changed over time as [the university] got four-year degrees. And now you don’t hear that at all. Now we have engineering and health care programs and business programs and master’s degree programs. So that 13th grade is pretty much gone.”
Before he was president of Utah Tech, Williams served as provost and vice president of Student Affairs at Indiana State.
Since his arrival in St. George, Williams said he and his wife Kristin have felt at home. The couple serves dinner to hundreds of students in their home each semester. The university caters the dinners.
Williams says what makes Utah Tech so unique from the other schools is that he and others essentially have built up the institution from the ground up by talking to faculty and students, meeting with town councils, holding town halls and consulting with business leaders to determine what kind of university and academic programs they wanted.
That’s where the school’s focus as a polytechnic university — with a focus on science and technology — came from. While Utah Tech is, by state statute, required to offer a comprehensive curriculum, it heavily emphasizes health care, innovation and STEM education.
For all the progress Utah Tech has made, it is not without its challenges. For starters, unlike prestigious polytechnic universities such as Texas Tech and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, Utah Tech does not get to pick and choose its students. As an open-access university, it is required to accept people with high school diplomas, irrespective of their academic preparation.
As a result, retention has been an issue. A measure of how many students return each year, retention was 54% among first-time, full-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees in 2014. By increasing students’ accessibility to academic advisers, peer coaches and career counselors, Williams said, that rate is now 59%. Similarly, graduation rates for full-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees — over a period of six years — have increased from 18% to 25% since 2014.
Even though the university must meet students where they are, regardless of their academic prowess, Williams is confident the university now has the support system, academic programs and inclusive atmosphere in place to help them achieve their educational and professional aspirations.
Affordable housing is another issue. The university has two on-campus dorms that sleep a combined 1,168 students. A third dorm slated for completion in fall 2024 will bump that total to 1,614 — far short of the demand. To bridge that shortfall, Utah Tech is trying to encourage the private sector to build more student-type housing off-campus, but Williams acknowledges that is tall order with inflation and the rising prices of construction materials.
Aside from dorms, more brick-and-mortar buildings are needed on campus. The 120,000-square-foot Science, Engineering and Technology Building completed a year ago is already about full. And Williams said the school will likely have to raise $70 million in public and private funds to build a new student center in the next several years.
With student enrollment projected to reach 16,000 by 2025 and grow between 4,000 and 8,000 every five years thereafter, the need for more buildings and other infrastructure will only increase. Nonetheless, Williams said he embraces the challenges and is optimistic about the years ahead.
His message to students: no matter where or what walk of life you come from, “if you are willing, we are going to help you become an engineer, or a physician, a teacher or an artist … We will provide you with the support you need to do that.”