“Cultural wars,” AI and the needs of Utah employers dominate the vetting of higher education board nominees

A Senate committee voted to support eight candidates chosen by Gov. Spencer Cox to make up the new Utah Board of Higher Education.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amanda Covington, one of nine nominees to the Utah Board of Higher Education, makes her presentation before the Utah Senate Education Confirmation Committee, Monday, June 5, 2023 at the Capitol.

Senators grilled the nominees to oversee higher and technical education in Utah Monday about their views on affirmative action, whether they would support having different standards to encourage diversity and how they would fight “bloat” to gain efficiency.

And nominees gave their ideas for keeping tuition costs down, better aligning education and training with workforce needs and dealing with the implications of artificial intelligence.

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, often cited “cultural wars” on campuses while asking nominees about moving away from a focus on race or “disaffected groups” of students to a focus on individual students.

Referring to a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court of the consideration of race in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Johnson asked nominee Jon Cox, “with respect to preferential treatment of certain classes, you know, diversity you can call it ... how do you think we can back away from some of the efforts that are being made on college campuses right now?”

Jon Cox, the principal at lobbying firm Utah Public Affairs and a distant cousin of Gov. Spencer Cox, answered, “I am not an expert on that specific case. But I do know obviously we comply with the law as stated and we’ll continue to do so as a system.”

He also pointed out: “Look at our current system, and there are certain demographic groups that are not fully participating or participating as much in our educational system.”

He added: “So I do think there’s opportunities for us to do better ... Not through mandates, but finding ways perhaps where we’re falling short and not reaching those different constituencies.”

Members of the Senate Education Confirmation Committee voted to support the nominations of the eight business and community leaders who appeared before them: Javier Chavez Jr., Jon Cox, Amanda Covington, Sharon Eubank, Danny Ipson, Tina Larson, Steve Neeleman and Aaron Skonnard.

[Read more about them: Gov. Cox wants these 10 Utahns to strategize the future of higher education in Utah]

Nominee Cydni Tetro was traveling Monday and did not appear; the committee will consider her candidacy at a later date. The Utah Senate will next vote whether to confirm each candidate for the Utah Board of Higher Education. Cox’s appointment of student member Holly Talbot does not require Senate confirmation.

Gov. Cox in late May announced his 10 nominees for the board, which is tasked with setting strategy for the state’s public universities and technical colleges.

Larson, president and COO at Recursion, a biotech company; told the committee she had used artificial intelligence in part to write her statement, to show its usefulness. Going forward, she said, “it’s going to seem shockingly inefficient to, for example, write a speech from scratch.”

She told senators, “We need to understand how the world is changing around us, and make sure that we’re preparing our students to not be left behind by what’s going to be likely a very significant revolution in technology.”

Nominees confirmed by the Senate will take office on July 1. Because the law requires staggered six-year terms, Cox will decide which new members are assigned initial terms of two, four or six years.

Here’s a look at each of the nominees.

Javier Chavez Jr.

Chavez comes from a family of entrepreneurs, he said, but the path his family took to find success wasn’t easy. “I grew up pretty poor,” he told members of the committee. “My father Javier Sr. was a humble farmer from Mexico.”

But his father’s abilities in track and field caught the attention of Weber State College in the late 1970s. He earned an athletic scholarship and came to the U.S.

“I fully believe higher education enabled my father and me to succeed,” Chavez said. “I believe higher education is the gateway to the American dream because I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been a part of it.”

Chavez earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah and his MBA and law degree at Boston College. He worked as an attorney and for two Fortune 500 companies in New York before returning to Utah to open his own law firm in Ogden. He also helps with the family business, Javier’s Authentic Mexican Food, and founded Cerveza Zólupez Beer Company in 2017.

He hopes to help keep tuition increases under control.

“I’m very worried about people who get stuck in college debt, putting off getting married starting a family not having children,” he said. “Very talented, potential entrepreneurs can’t launch their idea because they’re stuck in college debt.”

When asked by Johnson how he thinks the education system can “move away from preferential treatment to certain minority groups,” Chavez said he avoids the culture wars.

“I’m a business person,” he said. “Growing up in the restaurant business, we invite everybody, right, and everyone has a seat at the table. And so, my view is to try to build bridges and to ensure that people have a voice, but that we get along. And the best way I can do that is by making sure that I’m an example and that I lead by example.”

Amanda Covington

Covington, who has 20 years of experience in corporate communications, said she realizes “four-year institutions don’t fit everyone and not everyone enters college right out of high school.”

As leaders of a publicly funded system, she said, it will be the board’s job “to partner and collaborate on behalf of these students. I want to ensure that we deliver data-driven solutions to those who want certificates, those who want to obtain a four-year degree or more, and those who want to reskill or reenter the workforce.”

She currently serves as a trustee for Weber State University and Davis Technical College. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who chairs the committee, asked her why tuition at degree-granting colleges has risen faster than tuition at technical colleges.

Covington attributed it to the size and scope of services offered at traditional colleges. “There are opportunities where we can get in and look at where there are some better cost efficiencies,” she said.

Johnson asked her how she might tackle what he calls “degrees to nowhere,” or degrees that don’t lead to financial success or fit employers’ needs.

It is apparent, she said, that students attending Utah’s institutions “need to spend their money wisely, spend the least amount of time there, so that they can then take those skills and deploy those into the workforce. I think that one of the things we can do as the board is to really work on program evaluation and review.”

Johnson asked Covington if she thought universities should hold different groups of people to different standards “in the name of achieving diversity.”

“I don’t know that you hold them to different standards,” she said. “I think we all have the ability to access education and that we should all have the services that we need when we approach a university.”

Jon Cox

Cox said he will begin his appointment to the board with a “philosophy of impatience ... I think it’s time to get to work.”

He added: “When done correctly, education is the gateway of opportunity. From training electricians to dentists, we know that skilled labor adds value.”

The system’s goal should be not so much a degreed student body, he said, ”but a skilled student body.”

Cox said he is passionate about college affordability and commended Gov. Spencer Cox’s efforts to freeze tuition. Though it was not mandated, most colleges complied with the recommendation.

Sharon Eubank

As part of her role with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Eubank oversees the Perpetual Education Fund, a low-cost education loan program that has benefited more than 90,000 students in 40 countries.

Eubank told the senators that she has reviewed many applications by students from low-income backgrounds.

She said it is important to think about the job market when curating an education.

“I think higher education, in whatever form that it takes, paired with hot market jobs skills not only imparts confidence and empowerment to that student and to that student’s family, but it changes the society where they live,” she said.

Leaders need to consider all barriers to education, she said, including childcare and transportation. She also emphasized being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars when it comes to public universities, referencing her experience handling donations to the church.

Being part of the board is a growth opportunity for both her and Utah, Eubank said.

“Utah needs a specific kind of growth,” she said. “We need living-wage jobs. We need housing to remain affordable. And we need to protect the natural resources that make Utah everything that we love.”

Danny Ipson

Ipson, CFO and managing member at DATS Trucking/Overland Petroleum, told senators he comes from a family of mechanics, store owners and postmasters in rural Utah. He grew teary as he shared his family’s story.

He said he is particularly passionate about credit transferability, because after his father graduated from LDS Business College in 1968, his credits wouldn’t transfer toward work on a bachelor’s degree. His father then went straight into the labor force.

But when it was time for him and his brother to attend college, Ipson said, more options were available. All pathways to success should be respected, he said.

Ipson is a trustee for Utah Tech University, formerly Dixie State University. The name change last year caused community pushback, causing some Washington County residents to accuse state legislators and university officials of going “woke.”

Though Ipson was not on the board at the time, he was part of the name recommendation committee. Johnson asked him for his opinion on the controversy.

“It really became for me, individually, a lot more of about a business case towards how we can better position the institution itself and its future goals and possibilities, as a university,” Ipson said, “more so than possibly it was from a social justice or social acceptance standpoint.”

Tina Larson

Larson, president and chief operating officer at Recursion, a biotechnology company, said she is focused on the future of higher education — particularly the role of artificial intelligence.

“I sit at a company that is on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in health care,” Larson told senate members. “And I am convinced the world is going to look very different six years from now than it looks today.”

For a board that oversees higher education, that means creating educational programs that can adapt quickly, she said.

“I have a daughter in high school and it’s changing the conversations about, can high school students use artificial intelligence to write their papers,” Larson said. “This is going to be a huge issue for our education systems in the next few years.”

She said as technology evolves, it only makes sense to use what is most efficient.

“People have to be able to learn how to use these tools and I would much rather our higher education institutions get in front of or be engaged with what’s happening.”

Ultimately, Larson said she hopes to help students see what they can become.

“One thing that I have adopted over the years is, you can’t become what you can’t imagine or what you can’t see,” she said. “And in addition to thinking about success criteria and how we support students through their educational attainment, it’s very important that we help students imagine what is possible.”

Steve Neeleman

Neeleman, a former surgeon and founder of the financial technology company HealthEquity, said he is well-versed in driving the down costs of health care and he believes his experience can translate to higher education.

“At the end of the day, if we can think about our higher education as a return on investment, and think about what is the return,” he said, “then it’ll help us direct that investment.”

Neeleman said it will take a thorough review of university programs and some tough decisions.

Johnson inquired about HealthEquity’s Sustainably Purple project, the company’s commitment to social responsibility, according to its website. Neeleman explained that it is an initiative to support employees and conserve the environment.

“Purple, for us has just been remarkable,” Neeleman said. “And you can trace that throughout the whole experiences people have when it comes to working for HealthEquity, which includes protecting our teammates, protecting our environment and protecting our business leaders.”

Aaron Skonnard

Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, a workforce training company, aims to build the state’s tech skills.

“Every organization in the world must learn how to embrace and leverage tech in the future,” Skonnard said. “And in order to do that, you need people that have those tech skills. So how do we improve that alignment between the skills needed and what we’re actually producing?

“Ultimately, a lot of the gap that exists today is caused by the lack of tech education, and specifically computer science education, in the earliest years of our schooling, so K-12.”

He said this contributes to gaps in diversity in tech fields.

Fillmore asked him about free speech on college campuses.

“I perceive a viewpoint that says ‘in order to be inclusive, we can’t let anybody be offended,’” Fillmore said. “I see that sometimes leads colleges … to tamp down on speech and expression, lest we offend someone.”

Skonnard answered: “In our business, we believe that a more diverse team produces better answers and better products to serve a diverse customer base. We believe in creating an inclusive meritocracy, meritocracy to foster that.”

He added that applying that philosophy in higher education is more complicated, but he looks forward to tackling those issues.

“I do think words matter,” he said. “I do think there are certain words that can trigger and cause offense and create a lot of emotion that is unhelpful and not productive.”

Fillmore pressed him further. “I want to try to see if you can draw a line about where is the right balance between freedom of speech and expression,” Fillmore said.

Skonnard said there is a difference between the board’s role at the system level and the role of university officials at the administration level.

“And I think we want to be really clear on the difference between those two realms,” Skonnard said. “I’m not close enough to all of that today to really have a clear opinion on it at the moment, but I’m happy to engage on that.”

Correction • 8 a.m. June 6, 2023: This story has been updated to state that Sen. Lincoln Fillmore is from South Jordan.