I would change the way we accredit and rank universities. These should be about the ends or the goals in education, rather than about the means to education. When U.S. News & World Report and others rank us, they look at the size of our financial endowment, library size, admission standards, what percentage of students do we turn away — just a long series of things. These all means. If they could stop looking at the means to the end and just look at the ends, it would shift the way we do business. We respond to the way we are assessed and measured as well. When you accredit or rank a university based on a long list of things, it tends to distract us from the ultimate goal and robs us of our focus on the outcomes. I would love to see us be ranked based on the marginal gains that students achieve while studying with us. We should test them when they come in, and test them when they go out. That should be the measure of accreditation and ranking.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott L Wyatt. Scott is Southern Utah University’s 16th president. His priorities for SUU are summarized in the University’s new vision statement: “Southern Utah University will receive national recognition for its innovations in learning, student success, and providing the best educational experience in the Intermountain West.” He spends most of his time supporting students, staff, and faculty, as they explore diverse ideas, create transformative learning experiences, and achieve high-quality outcomes. During his time at SUU, he and the university’s faculty and staff have received national recognition for innovations in experiential learning, general education, and internship programs, led Utah’s colleges and universities in student enrollment growth, launched the University of the Parks initiative, opened a new veterans center, started a center for diversity and inclusion, and seen the construction or acquisition of more than $60 million worth of capital improvement projects, some presently under construction, including a new business building, repurposed geosciences building, Kenneth L. Cannon Equestrian Center, flight school complex, and the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, which includes the Southern Utah Museum of Art, the Anes Studio Theater, and the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theater. SUU was designated as Utah’s first Purple Heart Campus in 2016. Prior to his appointment as president of Southern Utah University, Scott served as president of Snow College, in Ephraim, Utah, served as a member of the Utah House of Representatives, was a partner in the Logan, Utah law firm, Daines, Wyatt & Jenkins, LLP, Served as the Cache County Attorney, where his work focused on prosecuting homicide, domestic violence, and sexual violence cases, along with leading victim services and educational programs. He earned a J.D. from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and a B.S. from Utah State University, with a dual major in Philosophy and Economics. Scott is married to Kathy Wyatt; they have four children and three grandchildren. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, nature photography, backpacking, climbing the world’s most beautiful mountains, such as Denali (Alaska), Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), and Elbrus (Russia), completing the curriculum for a M.A. in American History and Government, and supporting student events at the university.
Thank you so much for doing this with us!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I get to work every day with about 11 thousand students, most of whom are young. At Southern Utah University, they come from 65 countries in the world and every state in the union. And they all come from every different background with different outlooks on life. Every day I have some delightful experience with a student.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are two programs we are excited about and believe they are of great benefit to our students.
The state of Utah has authorized our university to create the state’s first 3-year bachelor’s degree program. This means creating a robust summer semester that allows students to attend year-round. This is really hard because we have to create a pathway for every single degree we offer. One of the challenges is ensuring classes that must be taken in sequential order are factored into our new summer offering. Essentially, we’re creating two pathways — one for three-year degree students and one for traditional four-year students.
Earlier this year, Southern Utah University partnered with Southwest Technical College. We are working on a dual enrollment program. This is unique in higher education because it is designed in reverse from the traditional stackable credentials. Most of the time when universities create a partnership with a technical college, they do it so that students can receive a certificate at the technical school and then move up to the university. We started this partnership to give an opportunity to students who came to the university first and then discovered they weren’t prepared, they weren’t clear in their goals, or decided they didn’t want to spend 4 years at the university. This partnership allows students to move from the university to the technical college. In the way it’s designed, the partnership feels like more of a change in major than dropping out. This is fully accredited by our regional accrediting agency. It’s an exciting project.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I’ve been a university president for 13 years. Before that, I was a criminal prosecutor. I went from seeing the consequences from the lack of education, the lack of meaningful job skills and most often, the lack of empathy or respect. I’m now working in an industry where we deliver these qualities as part of our educational experience. Students gain an education, they gain meaningful job skills, and they develop an understanding of other people.
From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I would give us a “B” because we’re doing well but with a little more effort we could get an “A” grade.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
1) We are focusing on access and affordability now more than we have in many years. Schools are competing for students. They are increasing their discount rates for tuition. Regional and research universities and community colleges are all working hard to improve access and affordability. That’s been a priority for Southern Utah University and I’m proud that we’re a national leader in ensuring lower debt for our graduates.
2) We are focusing on completions. I remember when I was a college student, no one really cared if I graduated or not. It was ‘come if you want, finish if you can.’ I don’t remember recruiters coming to my high school and I don’t recall anyone encouraging me to graduate. Today, we’re very focused on it as we try to improve completion rates. At my university, we’ve increased student retention by 15.6% in the past four years. That’s a big deal for us.
3) I think another thing that’s going well is the disruption in higher education that’s being created by online providers, primarily for mid-career and non-traditional students. Six out of every 10 adult Americans don’t have a college degree. We need to do a much better job to help people receive a college degree and increase their job skills. Online providers are helping us all in higher education to do that.
4) There’s a proven benefit between being a college graduate and a stronger country. We know a college graduate will make more money and is less likely to rely on government assistance, have higher levels of happiness and be a more engaged citizen.
5) Having a quality education helps people pivot. It’s a lot easier for a person to change career midstream if they have a college degree than if they don’t. If you have a very narrow technical certificate, it’s harder to move from one job to another. Universities do a great job of providing a broader education.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We are doing fairly well. I would give it a “C” grade. There are three things I would do.
We need to make sure the way we teach science is more fun and engaging. If we taught art the same way we taught science, no one would paint pictures. We start science by teaching all of the words — the things people need to memorize. But if we just threw people into science and let them have fun, they would be pulled in. I’ve been told there are more vocabulary words in the first biology class than the first French class. It’s intimidating for a lot of people. The goal in early science classes should not be to prepare for standardized exams but rather to get students turned-on to science. I think it would make a massive difference.
We also need to make science more immediately relevant. A lot of people would love science, they’ve just never really seen how it applies to them. For example, a student who is studying vocal performance should be able to take a class on the physics of sound rather than some general education class that fits their schedule. For an artist, they ought to be taught the science of color. There’s an example like that for everyone, depending on what their primary interest is.
We need to help students decide on majors when they’re in high school. We can take an unprepared student and get him or her through a STEM degree. What a student can’t do is come to college with an undeclared major and then after a couple of years decide on a science major. If during their junior year a student decides to be an engineer, they essentially have to start over because of prerequisite courses. Many students aren’t willing to do that and they settle for a degree just so they can graduate and get into the workforce.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
This question actually doesn’t need an explanation. It should be intuitive to everyone. Girls and women should have exactly the same opportunities as boys and men.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
1) We need more female mentors and role models.
2) We need to help women and girls understand how sought for they are in the STEM industries. If they major in one of these STEM fields, their chances of getting a job are almost a given.
3) Women need to know they don’t have to sacrifice having a family for a STEM career. For those who want to do both, it’s very possible. There’s still the mentality that young women need to go into a traditional “female role” — like school teacher so they can have the summers off. That’s no longer the case and should no longer be the expectation.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I side on STEAM. Every person focused on the arts should be given a great education in technology and science. And I think every person focused on STEM degrees ought to have a good education in the arts. Everyone needs exposure to both.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1) I would change the way we accredit and rank universities. These should be about the ends or the goals in education, rather than about the means to education. When U.S. News & World Report and others rank us, they look at the size of our financial endowment, library size, admission standards, what percentage of students do we turn away — just a long series of things. These all means. If they could stop looking at the means to the end and just look at the ends, it would shift the way we do business. We respond to the way we are assessed and measured as well. When you accredit or rank a university based on a long list of things, it tends to distract us from the ultimate goal and robs us of our focus on the outcomes. I would love to see us be ranked based on the marginal gains that students achieve while studying with us. We should test them when they come in, and test them when they go out. That should be the measure of accreditation and ranking.
2) General education needs to be less about disciplines and more about what we want the students to learn. What we want them to learn is more oral communication skills, more written communication skills, develop more problem-solving skills, and more critical thinking skills. We hear that from employers all the time. They are important skills for anyone to develop.
They also need to be able to successfully function in a democracy including developing a solid appreciation of the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and other fundamental components in our country. We’re seeing that today. People struggle to communicate. They can’t work out their differences. The country is fractured. Higher education is in a great position to train-up a new generation that’s more capable of working together. And we need to focus on that. One way to do that is to take general education classes, disconnect them from specific disciplines and make them all interdisciplinary. If they are connected to a discipline, it’s too tempting for the faculty to focus on the discipline he or she loves. If we make it more interdisciplinary so we have multi faculty members teaching these larger, important skills, then I think they’ll focus on these outcomes.
3) High school students need to be better prepared for college — not necessarily more academically prepared but directionally prepared. We can get an average student through just about any degree if that student shows up and is immediately ready to start working on that degree. Too many students wander around from major to major trying to figure out what they want to do. By the time they are a junior, many feel they have to settle on any degree rather than the one they finally discovered they want.
4) We need to do more project-based learning, team projects and internship experiences. Students, unfortunately, can get through high school and many can get through college by reading what they’re told to read, and what they’re told to learn and memorize. They need to be more creative. Students should spend more time answering the unscripted questions that are going to come their way in their future careers and lives.
5) Students need to read more. It’s surprising to me how many students graduate from a university not having read a single book. I don’t mean textbooks, those are a whole bunch of bullet points that walk you through a subject. Reading is one of the greatest sources for lifetime learning. It’s a foundation for life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No one became strong by living a life of ease.” Universities are a place where we see people come to experience significant growth, especially young people. Too many people, when they face difficulties, give up. They assume it’s too hard, they need to change their major and they quit. What they really should be learning is how to work hard, how to face difficulties, how to work through hard things. Grit is the most important skill a student can gain during their college experience.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
William H. McRaven. He’s a retired U.S. Navy admiral who planned the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. After he retired from the Navy, he became the chancellor of the University of Texas System. That’s an interesting combination from a very directive world — like the military to a very collaborative world — like a university. McRaven said, “the toughest job in the nation is the one of academic — or health — institutional president.” I would love to visit with him and talk about his experiences and get his advice.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I don’t spend a lot of time on social media but the best place would be Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/scott.l.wyatt
Thank you for all of these great insights!