Leadership & Governance

How One Institution Went From a Vocational School to a University

Matthew S. Holland, President, Utah Valley U.

September 27, 2016

Julia Schmalz

The United States needs more-inclusive campuses, where students can complete one certificate or degree and move on to the next, says Matthew S. Holland, president of Utah Valley University. It now offers several master’s programs but isn’t embarrassed by its vocational ethos, he says: The university is more focused on serving its nearly 35,000 students than on reaching for the next tier.

Sara Lipka edits coverage of campus life and other topics. Follow her on Twitter @chronsara, or email her at sara.lipka@chronicle.com.

TRANSCRIPT

SARA LIPKA: Hello. We're here today with Matthew Holland, President of Utah Valley University. Thank you so much for being here.

MATTHEW HOLLAND: Thank you. Happy to be here.

SARA LIPKA: Now, you've been president of Utah Valley for about seven years.

MATTHEW HOLLAND: That's right.

SARA LIPKA: And that's around the time that the institution became a university. Tell me what that transition has meant for the place.

MATTHEW HOLLAND: So UVU became a university in 2008. I came a year later in 2009. And it was a very interesting time. I think people were wondering, OK, we're a university, but what kind of a university are we going to be? And so in addition to whatever else a new president goes through, I got to really think about the future of the institution and the overall trajectory and aim we wanted to pursue. And that's been a very gratifying thing to be part of.

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SARA LIPKA: And so some institutions we see are reaching for higher rungs, a higher Carnegie classification, and ramping up their research activity. Is that a direction that you see the institution continuing to go, or what destination do you see for yourselves?

MATTHEW HOLLAND: So that was one of the key questions when I came on board. We'd moved from a vocational school to a technical institute to a technical college, a community college, state college. So we've been consistently, about every other decade, moving up, as you say, the Carnegie Classification chain. And the next natural step would seem to be, OK, now you've gotten to become a major tier one research institution. And we've actually come up with a different answer to that.

We're very proud of our path. And I think we've absolutely gone the direction we needed to to become a university. We're now the largest public university in the state of Utah, at 34,000 students in terms of head count. So we're clearly needed, filling a niche there. But it's really key, I think, that we not go down that path of becoming a very expensive research-focused institution.

Now, we will do some research. We want faculty who are academically serious and staying connected with their disciplines. We're a serious institution of higher learning. But every institution in this nation can't afford to go that direction.

It's not going to work. And we do have something of a crisis brewing in the nation right now. We've got to get more students into higher education and completing degrees, but on models that the nation can afford. And I think we're pursuing a model that's affordable while still being very high quality.

SARA LIPKA: So some models in other states for public higher education would have community colleges and four-year institutions with increasingly sophisticated articulation agreements between the two. What does it mean to have an institution where you can get both of those things?

MATTHEW HOLLAND: I think it's one of the great elements of our mission that makes it so unique and so compelling. So we really are a community college function within a larger university. So we're still open admissions. We still do lots of trade and technical education, certificate, and associate degrees. And yet that operation sits side-by-side and under the same set of buildings, faculty members, and administrators of a really excellent four-year teaching institution.

Now, not every institution should look like this. But one of the powers of this model is that it draws a lot of students in on that community college open admissions approach. And then shows them that they can do that and they can compete in a university setting and move seamlessly on into two-year degrees and four-year degrees. And so I think we get a lot of students thinking they might just be able to do a certificate, maybe an associate's degree. And they not only found they can do that, they can move into a bachelor's degree with less transactional costs, more efficiency, and with more confidence along the way, and also getting the benefits of those two-year certificate programs in the environment of the seriousness of a four-year major teaching university. So there are a lot of things about it that make it very compelling right now, given the issues higher education is facing.

SARA LIPKA: Right. And I've heard that the university maintains the ethos of a vocational school. What does that mean, and why is that important?

MATTHEW HOLLAND: Well, we're proud of our vocational roots. And I think there might be some who would say, well, now you're a university. You want to kind of shed that and be a little bit embarrassed by it. But for us, there's a grittiness to it, a scrappiness to say, we're going to take life as it is and make it work. And we're also committed to being very applied and practical. I think that's part of the ethos.

In that, even as we've become much more sophisticated and we understand theory and data and rigor and all the things that come with a bona fide university education, we're making sure that our degrees and our programs are connected to the real world. So there's a lot going on with that ethos that we don't want to lose sight of, even as we've introduced a new ethos, if you will. And that's the ethos of a serious university.

SARA LIPKA: And you mentioned you're at about 34,000 for enrollment now. And I understand that you're planning to grow to more than 40,000 by 2020. Now, Utah is one of the states that demographically has, right now, more students graduating from high school, and those numbers are projected to grow for the next several years. How much can that be an enrollment strategy, or what else do you have in mind? What else are you pursuing to increase that enrollment?

MATTHEW HOLLAND: So, yes, Utah's a fast growing state, and Utah Valley is a fast growing part of that state. So some of what we're experiencing is just our own demographics. But our growth is really a function of more than just that. Students really are voting with their feet.

Right now our highest source of growth is actually juniors and seniors who are not transferring. In other words, students who ordinarily would have gotten to that point and then would veer off to another institution or program are saying, we love Utah Valley. You've got 75 bachelor's degrees, eight master's degrees. We love the engaged learning model. Pedagogically, they embrace it. They see it's tied to things they want to do in the real world. And so they're staying, and that's a big part of the growth for us moving forward.

We also talk a lot about being inclusive at Utah Valley University. So we think it's not enough just to be open admissions, but we're proactively going out into under-served and under-represented communities with recruiting, with mentoring. We have embedded mentors in our local high schools that surround the campus.

We've gone from application rates that went from the low 40% up to 94% in terms of students from some of these under-served populations who are now applying to college. So that's having an effect. So, yes, the growth part of it's happening naturally. But a lot of it's happening because of our intentional commitment to our mission, and so we do see that aim going up to the mark, as you say, 40,000 by 2020, and something approaching almost 50,000 by 2025. And so we worked very hard to figure out how to handle that growth and accommodate it and do it with great quality.

SARA LIPKA: So that was something I wanted to ask about. You have juniors who are no longer transferring because they can pursue a bachelor's degree on your campus that previously didn't exist.

MATTHEW HOLLAND: That's right.

SARA LIPKA: And you mentioned how many bachelor's degree programs you now have. How did you make sure that you weren't adding those too fast? Or how would you have known if you were adding them too fast?

MATTHEW HOLLAND: So one of the things I think Utah is very good at is they've got a terrific system. So we have a very effective-- the Utah system of higher education, the board of regents, a very talented group of individuals, who's very concerned about the quality issue. And so there's a very rigorous process we have to go through at the board of regent level to get our programs passed. And then we've put our own pressure on ourselves to make sure that we don't get ahead of ourselves, and we're doing that at every level.

So in addition to those programs, we've just added five masters degrees. Now, when I first started, we had one master's program. We very shortly added two. And I think people thought, oh, you're a university now. Go add a lot more master's. And we could have. There was certainly a call for that.

We said, no, we're going to take our time. We're going to do this right. We established a graduate studies office, a graduate studies director, new policies, fine-tuned the programs we had. And then we took a list of-- I think we had 25 or 30 recommendations for master's programs and really whittled those down to just five new programs that were tailored for the local regional need, where we had appropriate faculty resources, where the student interest is. And that's really emblematic of what we've also done in the baccalaureate level too.

We look at a lot of data about what the regional demand and need is. We look at what student interest is. We look at what our faculty expertise is. And then we have to make these arguments at the local level through our trustees on up through the regents. And I think that filtering mechanism has made sure that we haven't gotten ahead of ourselves.

SARA LIPKA: Well, thank you so much for being here today. We really appreciate your visit.

MATTHEW HOLLAND: Thank you. Enjoyed being here.