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Exercising new authority over higher education, the Utah Senate has confirmed David Buhler as commissioner of higher education. But one Senate leader urged him to tackle a "tremendous misalignment" between the state's universities and workforce needs.
In a confirmation committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asked Buhler to safeguard the role of the Utah College of Applied Technology, higher education's "little sister" that provides vocational training to thousands.
The Utah Board of Regents, which oversees the state's system of eight colleges and universities, selected Buhler in June to succeed William Sederburg, who retired this month.
But Stephenson, an outspoken education reformer, asked Buhler to ensure "the power and the stature of the Board of Regents doesn't become something that makes sure 'the system' gets its share first without regard to the greater needs in our economy."
Under a new law, Buhler's appointment was not complete until it won approval from Gov. Gary Herbert and the Senate, which unanimously gave it Wednesday. SB39 also gives the governor authority to fire the commissioner.
Buhler has long served the Regents as associate commissioner for public affairs .
Senators also confirmed the governor's appointment of LDS general authority Marlin Jensen, an Ogden lawyer and former church historian, to the Board of Regents. Both appointees affirmed their commitment to achieving Herbert's goal of dramatically increasing the portion of working-age adults who hold some post-secondary certification.
"My overriding goal is that all Utahns will have the opportunities I had as a young man growing up in Utah to take advantage of higher education to improve my life and be able to provide for my family. Some of these things are at risk," said Buhler, a University of Utah graduate and the grandson of a Park City miner.
"We need to make sure we have high-quality institutions of higher education that are accessible and affordable," he said.
Buhler, 55, is a two-time Republican candidate for Salt Lake City mayor (he lost to Deedee Corradini in 1991 and Ralph Becker in 2007) who served a term in the state Senate in the late 1990s. He led the state Department of Commerce, served on the Salt Lake City Council, taught political science at the U., and raised five children with his wife Lori.
As commissioner, he said, he will stress four principles credibility, innovation, focus, and most importantly, unity among the eight schools.
"While each institution has its own mission, set of issues and challenges, as a system we work together for the good of the state," he told senators.
Yet many of the state's innovations aren't translating into outcomes, cautioned Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. Graduation rates are too low and graduates are not being adequately prepared for available jobs, he said.
"The water doesn't get to the end of the ditch on some of these things," he said.
Stephenson asked Buhler to consider ways to get more students into science, technology, engineering and math fields commonly referred to as STEM. He complained that students pursuing STEM degrees are charged 25 percent more tuition, even though the workforce needs more graduates in these fields.
"Do we really want to complete degrees that may not lead to a productive job?" he asked. "I have been contacted by many parents and students who recently graduated with great hope upon commencement day, only to find that they had $40,00 or $60,000 in student loans and had no real opportunity to have a job based in their degree."
Utah students graduate with the lowest levels of debt in the nation, about $15,000 on average among those who take out loans. Still, Buhler conceded there is room for improvement.
"We always need to find new ways to do more. We will take you up on these challenges," he replied. "Just give me a few days."
New member for Board of Regents
The Utah Senate on Wednesday confirmed Marlin Jensen, former historian for the LDS Church, to the board that oversees the state's eight-campus system of public colleges and universities.