A President Brings a Revolutionary University to Prominence

Western Governors U.

Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors U.
February 26, 2012

Western Governors University, first conceived in 1995, embodied an idea that was ahead of its time. And early in its life, that showed.

Traditional accreditors resisted its model: an all-online, competency-based institution. Experts scoffed at its grandiose promises to reshape higher education. Students, unmoved by its founders' ambitious early enrollment projections, mostly stayed away.

THE INNOVATOR: Robert W. Mendenhall, Western Governors University

THE BIG IDEA: Build a new kind of online college from the ground up, focusing on whether students can demonstrate "competencies" rather than on counting the number of courses taken.

Yet a Utah technology entrepreneur named Robert W. Mendenhall, who had been asked to kick-start the venture a few years into its existence, says he never doubted. "It took me about 30 seconds to decide I would do it," says Mr. Mendenhall, WGU's president since 1999. "I was always confident that we'd pull it off. The idea made so much sense."

Today the unusual institution has drawn growing notice from national mainstream news media and at meetings on college affordability by both the U.S. Senate and President Obama. It has a growing student body of more than 25,000 students.

Mr. Mendenhall, now 57, came to WGU when it had no students and no degrees. "The vision of it was just coagulating," recalls Michael O. Leavitt, the former Utah governor who was instrumental in the institution's founding and in Mr. Mendenhall's hiring.

With his know-how for building start-up businesses, a practical willingness to shed time-consuming and unpromising components (like a plan to run an online catalog of online courses from other institutions), and what Mr. Leavitt calls a determined "sense of mission" for low-cost, competency-based higher education, Mr. Mendenhall kept the nonprofit institution moving.

Internally, he was an "in your face" presence, a colleague says, while externally, thanks in no small part to the political backing of 19 governors, he pulled the strings that would eventually land WGU millions in federal grants to develop its online programs and its distinguishing proficiency exams by which students progress toward a degree, and millions more from the Lumina Foundation to create what would become its turning point, a teachers' college.

That college and the university's regional accreditation came in 2003. "We've been growing by 30 to 40 percent a year ever since," says Mr. Mendenhall, who frequently boasts that the overall capital investment in WGU of about $20-million in government backing and another $20-million from private sources, is less than what many colleges spend to construct one building. For most degrees, tuition is just $5,800 per calendar year; student mentors and course mentors guide students through the curricula of more than 50 different undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Mr. Mendenhall, who earns about $700,000 per year, has turned down several job offers from the private sector. That loyalty is not surprising, says Mr. Leavitt. "He believes he's changing the world a bit in higher education, and he's right."

Video: Bob Mendenhall spoke in February at a U.S. Senate hearing in February on improving college affordability. (His testimony begins at 185:45.)