Utah’s commissioner for higher education resigns without much explanation after ‘emergency’ board meeting

The board meeting to announce Dave Woolstenhulme’s departure was noticed 29 minutes before it started. He was not present.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme is pictured in this photo from Aug. 23, 2017. Woolstenhulme's resignation from the Utah System of Higher Education was announced on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

The commissioner overseeing higher education for Utah has resigned — an announcement that came as a surprise Wednesday after a hastily called board meeting and an hour spent by members talking in a private session.

Dave Woolstenhulme will be stepping down to “pursue other professional opportunities,” said Amanda Covington, the chair for the Utah Board of Higher Education. She did not provide any additional information. And Woolstenhulme was not present at the meeting.

A news release on his departure similarly lacked detail.

A spokesperson for the board confirmed Woolstenhulme would be stepping down “effective immediately.” His profile page has already been removed from the state’s website.

Woolstenhulme first took the job as interim commissioner in July 2019 and formally took over the post a year later. In his position, he was the highest ranking official over Utah’s eight public colleges and universities, as well as the eight technical colleges here — collectively referred to as the Utah System of Higher Education.

His 2022 salary was $389,000, according to Utah’s government salary transparency website.

Prior to that, he was the vice president of statewide campuses for Utah State University. And he also served as the commissioner over Utah’s technical colleges from 2016 to 2018.

Public notice of the meeting by the Utah Board of Higher Education to announce Woolstenhulme’s resignation Wednesday came just 29 minutes before the 3 p.m. discussion started.

Under Utah law, a public body is supposed to give notice at least 24 hours in advance. This meeting was not previously scheduled and, because of the short notice, is labeled as an “emergency” session.

The board opened the meeting, which was held virtually, and then immediately went into a closed conversation for the purposes of talking about “the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual.” That is allowed under state law.

Board members came back into open session after an hour, announced Woolstenhulme’s resignation and thanked him for his service.

They then announced that Geoff Landward, currently the deputy commissioner, would take over in the interim. Landward has worked for the Utah System of Higher Education for eight years. His profile page has already been updated to reflect the change.

“Thank you for your trust, and I’m honored to be able to help in this transition in any way I can,” he said.

(Utah System of Higher Education) Geoff Landward will serve as the interim commissioner for higher education in Utah, after the resignation of Dave Woolstenhulme was announced Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

The board said it will conduct a national search for a permanent replacement.

The commissioner for higher education works closely with the presidents of each public Utah university and college to achieve goals, such as increasing graduation rates and improving access to education.

The position of commissioner is similar to that of superintendent for a K-12 school district. The Board of Higher Education, like a school board, oversees the commissioner and can hire or fire someone in the position. Board members also direct the commissioner to work on certain projects or initiatives.

The brief news release from the board Wednesday included a short statement from Woolstenhulme at the end.

He said: “It has been a privilege to work alongside Utah’s talented higher education community and those who impact student outcomes. I am proud of our collective accomplishments, including the recent merging of two systems. We have incredible leaders in each of our institutions and they are fully committed to their respective missions. I am grateful for my time at both the institutional level and the commissioner’s office.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has submitted a public records request for any separation agreements around his departure and his letter of resignation.

Woolstenhulme also previously led the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College and taught at the Uintah Basin campus in eastern Utah for Utah State University.

There has not been previous public discussion by the board about Woolstenhulme’s performance. But his departure does come during some upheaval within higher education in the state.

USU President Noelle Cockett stepped down in July after earlier announcing she would leave the school. Records obtained by The Tribune through a public records request showed the members of the Board of Higher Education at the time were pushing for her resignation as concerns mounted about how sex assault cases were being handled at the northern Utah school.

None of those Board of Higher Education members remain in their positions after the board was overhauled by Utah lawmakers during the most recent legislative session. The 10 members now on it were selected to serve by Gov. Spencer Cox. They took their seats this summer.

Recently, too, the Utah System of Higher Education merged with the Utah System of Technical Colleges to be one organization overseeing all post-high school pathways for students.

The state’s eight public colleges and universities have 195,000 students. And the eight technical colleges have 20,000. That means the system manages 215,000 total students.