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Out of the Box: From UVSC to UVU

The following is a condensed excerpt from the book “75 Years Strong: A History of Utah Valley University,” by Sondra Jones, covering UVU’s transition from state college to university.

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President Kerry D. Romesburg had led Utah Valley Community College to the status of a four-year, degree-granting state college, always knowing it was just a matter of time before it became a university. Most state officials now agreed, but it was a question of when and how. Always optimistic, President Romesburg believed this would happen within five years – by 2007. But most state officials believed the college couldn't begin to think about becoming a university until at least 2010, or more likely even later. Meanwhile, the State Board of Regents searched for a new president who would guide the young state college through calm waters, rocking no more boats, diverting no more money, and "staying within the box."

Consequently the Board of Regents hired William A. Sederburg, the nine-year president of Ferris State College (now Ferris State University), a regional institution in Michigan with strong trades and technical programs. The Regents clearly wanted UVSC to continue being a degree-granting community and trades college without pretensions toward university status, and Commissioner of Higher Education Cecilia Foxley charged President Sederburg to slow the movement toward university status (and quiet those who were promoting the transition) by very methodically assessing the readiness of the institution for this change. But Sederburg was looking to lead the school onward – methodically, yes – but at a much faster pace than the commissioner envisioned. With an appreciative nod to the critical groundwork laid by Romesburg, he began the task of devising and implementing a plan to make UVSC a regional university. Over the next five years, he reorganized the administration; initiated a strategic planning, budgeting, and accountability (PBA) process; created a national presidential advisory board (NPAB) and a community advisory council (CAC); revamped the institution's policy approval process and management system; funded and constructed several new facilities, including a massive new state-of-the-art library; and, most importantly, propelled UVSC into university status, bringing with that status an additional $10 million in annual funding.

Sederburg believed there were three basic types of college presidencies: one that kept the status quo, one that had to fix something, and one where the president takes an institution from point A to point B. He came to Utah, he said, because he wanted to take UVSC to point B: university status. He loved the challenge and opportunity of shaping an institution that had such energy, potential for growth, great students, and a core of qualified faculty.

During the Sederburg years (2003-2008) the number of bachelor degrees offered increased from 31 to 58, in addition to dozens more associate, certificate, and diploma programs. The college also hired another 120 full-time faculty with graduate degrees, as well as an equivalent increase in part-time faculty. Knowing that an institution is shaped – and aligned to its mission – by the type and focus of its faculty, Sederburg made sure that job announcement for faculty positions clearly stated that UVSC was a student-centered teaching institution that prided itself in engaged learning pedagogy.

Because he fully expected to attain university status for the college, Sederburg encouraged three of his departments to begin the research necessary to create solid master programs as well. Although none could be approved until university status was achieved, by then the programs were in place with the first ready for approval within a month. A master of education was approved in August 2008, followed by a master of science in nursing a year later and a master of business administration the year after that.

A significant number of capital improvements took place as well, all of which added to the developing image of a university-class institution. Sederburg worked with advisors to revise the campus master plan and would ultimately see more than $100 million in construction completed, including a new baseball field, the Liberal Arts Building, the Capitol Reef Field Station, and the new Wasatch Campus, as well as the purchase of a building in northeast Orem (the former WordPerfect campus) to house the culinary arts program, and the purchase and remodel of the old Vineyard Elementary School to house the School of Education (McKay Education Building). And Sederburg initiated and saw to completion the jewel of the campus: a new, state-of-the-art library. It would be another stepping stone to university status.

The new library was dedicated by Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with all of the previous institution presidents in attendance, including an elderly Wilson W. Sorensen, as well as J. Marvin Higbee, Kerry D. Romesburg, and Interim President Lucille Stoddard. Sederburg cut the ribbon on the new Utah Valley University Library on July 1, 2008, the same day the institution officially became a university. These two events were Sederburg's crowning achievements.

When the UVU Library was opened, Wilson Sorensen was brought to visit campus. As they approached from the north, tears came to Sorensen's eyes. "I never thought I would see the day of such a beautiful library," he choked, remembering earlier days on the old Fairgrounds and Provo campuses.

But planning a new library did not itself lead to the college's becoming a university. Sederburg faced a number of challenges trying to shift the mindset of the political powers to recognize the inevitability of UVSC's becoming a university. The question was not would UVSC become a university, but when it would and how that would be accomplished. However, the Regents and legislators were caught in an older mindset that defined the roles and missions of Utah's community or trades colleges, and they fought the transformation of these institutions. Consequently, the battle for university status had been terribly contentious for both Southern Utah University and Weber State University; the process had been divisive and approval had been won by very slim margins. As UVSC approached the same crossroads, some legislators were public in their opposition, insisting that UVSC just needed to "stay within its box." But Sederburg kept pushing the idea that university status was inevitable and that it was a natural trajectory, and he worked tirelessly to overcome officials' beliefs that UVSC was not yet ready to become a university.

Once again, a key factor was the increasingly restrictive enrollment at neighboring Brigham Young University and the valley's rapidly growing population. Sederburg and his administrators lobbed the community, talked to people, gave sales pitches, and sold the inevitability of university status. The region's population growth and its growing diversity were also significant factors; someone needed to meet the demand for education that BYU could no longer meet. And even as they lobbied, UVSC continued to develop its academics, facilities, faculty, and staff. And, Sederburg reminded everyone, thanks to Romesburg's efforts, the college was already competing in Division I athletics.

On the advice of a specialist, his administrative advisors, and key legislators – chief among them being Senate President John Valentine from Utah County – Sederburg created a concrete plan for moving to university status, one with steps and dates that he transferred to a large whiteboard in his office. This served as a reminder to all who entered what their ultimate institutional goal was. Finally the new commissioner of higher education, Rich Kendell, got on board with the idea, simply insisting the institution "do it right" and create an "authentic" university.

Commissioner Kendell, in consultation with Sederburg, hired consultants to identify key factors and benchmarks UVSC needed to achieve in order to demonstrate its readiness. Once these factors were identified – internally referred to as "The Kendell Plan" – Sederburg charged key advisors to draft the "Rationale for University Status" to document progress made and specific plans for improvement. The rationale identified eight critical reasons why UVSC should be granted a mission change, and it was presented in December 2006 to the Regents for their acceptance. These reasons included the increasing quality of its undergraduate programs; the need for, and the institution's ability to, begin offering career-specific graduate programs; and the impact university status would have on student success and the regional economy. The rationale also pointed out that the institution was ready for university status because the number and quality of its faculty met university standards, with the majority holding terminal degrees. And, the institution had university-quality facilities to support its academic programs and offer support services to its students. With the Regents' support, Sederburg looked to Senate President Valentine and other legislative leaders for statutory authorization and funding. Ironically, it was Representative Dave Clark from Washington County (who later served as Speaker of the House and helped Dixie State College follow UVSC's path to university status years later) who presented the bill in the House for vote.

It wasn't just about university status. It was also about having the state fund the institution appropriately for its role and mission, then and in the future. Sederburg pointed out the funding disparity per student (full-time equivalency) between UVSC and its peer institutions within the Utah System of Higher Education. This was later labeled "acute equity" funding and would finally be realized under Sederburg's successor, Matthew S. Holland. Such things had never been discussed publicly, and Sederburg challenged that silent tradition and status quo. He, too, was "taken to the woodshed" by some state leaders, reminiscent of Romesburg's treatment for lobbying for the institution's first four-year degrees. But Sederburg never let up nor abandoned his efforts to draw attention to the institution's poor funding.

While there was tremendous support for university status, there were still some who worried about what kind of a university the institution would be. For Sederburg, this decision was clear: The institution would not be a traditional liberal arts university but would become an engaged institution that continued to include trades and technology and continue to serve the community. However, semantics could be a stumbling block. When Sederburg tried to use terms such as "career-oriented" and "applied," few faculty bought into it. But Sederburg knew the institution did not have the resources to become a research institution nor was that the need within the state system. In any case, he didn't want that nor did most of the faculty or key stakeholders. The state already had the University of Utah, Utah State University, and BYU. At this point, the administration began looking at the idea of engaged learning.

The community engagement model was an ideal fit. Not only did it open new avenues of community cooperation, it also perpetuated the long history of community linkage and engagement that had marked the institution from its earliest years when it had trained apprentices for Geneva Steel and secretaries for local businesses, as well as incorporating skilled local tradesmen as vocational faculty.

Sederburg had succeeded in getting people to know what UVSC was doing and had taught them about the tremendous growth and development that had occurred. He had also made the institution more visible and, in so doing, convinced the Regents and the legislature that Utah Valley State College should become Utah Valley University. This time the opposition was not there, and in 2007, the bill to create Utah Valley University and fund $10 million passed the legislature unanimously – an almost unheard-of phenomenon. On March 19, 2007, a packed audience filled the ballroom to witness officials sign the bill, and the institution officially became a university on July 1, 2008. On this same July day, officials cut the ribbon to reveal the nerve center of the new university: the magnificent new UVU Library.