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Making Stars of Students

Academics driven by doubling down on vision of UVU's mission

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by

The first decade of pursuing academic excellence at Utah Valley University, as a university, will be remembered for its adherence to a strong definition of its mission, as well as an appreciation of the widow's mite.

At least that's what one important observer of UVU academics — its vice president, Dr. Jeffery Olson — believes.

Olson has only been at UVU for a portion of the 10-year history of UVU as a four-year institution and President Matthew S. Holland's administration that nearly parallels that period. But he says that diving deep to understand the needs of the service area has, and should continue, to drive UVU's academics.

"Under President Holland's leadership, we carefully infused the core values, our core themes," Olson says, "and we carefully decided to retain a dual mission as a community college and a university. We weren't going to jettison the non-university parts of our activities as we became a university. We were going to actively address the educational needs of our community."

Olson says the Utah Board of Regents and state Legislature initially pointed UVU to the path of being a teaching university, rather than a research institution, but that the UVU administration made it work by "examining the needs of our service area, defining exactly how we are going to do that and who we are going to be, and then doubling down and making that actually happen."

While acknowledging that the support UVU has garnered from the Legislature and donors is remarkable, Olson says UVU leadership is particularly sensitive to stretching every dollar.

"One of the things President Holland has done in terms of those administrative imperatives is that he has helped to create a culture that values every dollar the university receives," Olson says. "He recognizes that the money comes from students, their families, taxpayers, donors who are trusting us and trusting their funds to our care, and we need to use all that very carefully. We have a stewardship, a fiduciary duty to those people to be careful how we allocate our resources."

Olson describes himself as a person who has "spent a lot of time studying universities," and while he loves and values the importance of research institutions, he has come to value the UVU teaching university approach: "Defined by the regents, yes, but refined and amplified under the leadership of President Holland in quite a remarkable way. It builds on the past — he acknowledges that — but it has been amazing."

Comparing the two types of institutions of higher education, Olson notes that "most universities are seeking faculty stars, while we're trying to make student stars."

Making Stars of Students

A major benchmark on the academic path of growth, Olson says, was the decision to offer and the subsequent approval of eight master's degree programs. He says employment projections and job postings were examined, "sector strategy meetings" were held with employers and focus groups, faculty were consulted, and 22 proposals were whittled down to the initial five master programs.

"These five were those our service area most needed and that we were well-positioned to do effectively," Olson says. "There had to be the need and there also needed to be the capacity for us to do those effectively."

The recent approval of three new engineering degrees is also a major step in academic progress, he says. These advances augment the underlying dual-mission approach of UVU to continue to offer certificates and training to give a post-high school credential to an ever-growing service area, Olson explains.

"The need is there. In society right now, you have to be really fortunate to provide a good life for yourself and your family if you don't have at least some post-high school credential, and yet more than half of the people in our service area don't have that. About 160,000 adults in our service area don't have a post-high school credential," Olson says. "Our dual mission really helps with that, being able to offer certificates as well as associate and bachelor degrees. And I hope we continue to build pathways that lead from high school to those degrees."

Another highlight of UVU academics this past decade, Olson says, is the achievements and honors received by student groups, clubs, and departments.

"The number of national awards students in various programs have received is really quite remarkable when you consider there are thousands of institutions in the United States," Olson says. "For a regional institution like we are to compete and perform well on so many fronts is really amazing.

"One of the most remarkable things — and it came out in our most-recent accreditation visit — is that the number one commendation is how deeply the institution across the board is committed to student success, which President Holland calls 'the core of our core.' And that's a wonderful thing, an amazing thing."

That focus on student success "and the value of the academy" is one of the areas in which Olson feels Holland excels. While balancing and expanding the core themes of the university — serious, inclusive, and engaged — Olson believes Holland has driven UVU to excel, and he says he hopes that continues with future administrations.

"He really is a remarkable academic leader," Olson says of Holland. "He loves the academy — he's an academic at heart. In his spare time he does academic things, in the event of having any spare time. He continues to fit academic things into his life, such as taking the sabbatical leave last summer at Oxford. He spent a little bit of his time early in his career as a business consultant, so he also brings a really good business acumen to the leadership of the institution ... He has really doubled down on all those things, all the elements of our mission, in a really remarkable way."