Episode 110 - Final Episode

As he begins the transition to his new position as Senior Executive Director of State Online Education, President Scott L Wyatt reflects on his service at SUU and future opportunities.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined today in this very special podcast by, as always, President Wyatt. Scott, how are you this afternoon?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve.

Meredith: We are embarking today on our 110th podcast episode, and there's nothing particularly special about the number 110, except this will be a particularly special episode because this will be…in its current format, this will be the final episode of Solutions for Higher Education, because you have accepted a new position. Why don't you tell me a little about it?

Wyatt: Yeah. So, the Commissioner and the Board of Higher Education have asked me—they are my bosses…

Meredith: Right. Everybody has got a boss.

Wyatt: [Laughs] They have asked me to lead a new initiative for the state, which is to bring together all of the colleges and universities in their online degree programs and create a unified, system-wide approach to delivering those programs. Sounds like an interesting challenge.

Meredith: Wow, a big undertaking. Because, as usual, universities are kind of siloed from each other, and so that will be an interesting challenge.

Wyatt: Yeah, we're always accused of having our departments somewhat siloed from each other, but the universities are even more so that way.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And we all get along great and like each other and see each other as colleagues and such, but we all are also a little bit territorial and a little bit competitive with each other.

Meredith: Yeah, for sure. Not just on the football field.

Wyatt: Yeah, through everything.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: So, this will be an interesting challenge to try to pull everybody together in a common goal, which is to deliver online education to students.

Meredith: Well, since that's my role down here at the university these days, I'm very interested in what you come up with. So, even though you‘ll be working at the state, I'm imagining that you'll continue to be attached to Southern Utah University, at least in some way. You'll probably spend the summer transitioning to the new job, and since you'll be at the Commissioner's Office, you'll probably regularly work with us down here, right?

Wyatt: Yeah, I'm still actually struggling with the thought that I'm going to be less attached. [Both laugh]

Meredith: Yeah, well, so are we all.

Wyatt: It has become so much a part of my identity and my whole life, along with my wife Kathy, it seems that being a president of a university is not a job, it's a lifestyle. It's every day, weekends, evenings…my whole life is consumed in Southern Utah University and it's been a spectacular time. So, I'm trying to get used to the idea that I won't be in that role. And maybe by the time I start my new job in August I'll be almost there. [Laughs]

Meredith: Well, as you know I'm involved a little bit in athletics and also in the fine arts off and on, and I see you at every one of those events. [Both laugh] So, I know how all-encompassing this job is for you and Kathy.

Wyatt: It's been the best time of our married life, actually. It's been just fantastic.

Meredith: So, I know that people are going to wonder—is this…is a move to the state office, is that a promotion? Or is that a sideways thing? How does that…? People will be curious about it.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, I would say that there is no such thing as a promotion from being the president of a university like SUU. It's just a singular and wonderful experience, surrounded by incredible colleagues and friends and community members, alumni, supporters, and of course, the most incredible students that anybody could hope to spend their life with. And in my new role, I'm going to be probably working from home for quite a while. So, it will be a little bit more of a low-key experience.

Meredith: Yeah, that will be a big change for you.

Wyatt: I'll be working with all of the presidents of the state schools, and building a strategy for us. There isn't a strategy. I'm not filling a vacant position, this is a brand new initiative, and the Commissioner and the Board wanted a president who already had really strong, working relationships with the Board, the other presidents, the Legislature, and experience in this type of education delivery. So, that's why they asked and I'm happy to be of service in that way, and I look forward to a continuing, never-ending relationship and life of support of Southern Utah University.

Meredith: So, SUU…I don't know how many of our listeners know this, but SUU two or three years ago decided to make a real commitment to online learning and created our Online Teaching and Learning area and staffed it with designers and technicians and a media team and other things. So, the university—despite the fact that our primary focus still remains our traditional face-to-face delivery—the university has made a really strong commitment to online education, so I think that will stand us in good stead in whatever you end up doing at the state. Do you think that?

Wyatt: Yeah, the…SUU has had online education for a very long time, but it really didn't receive institution wide support, as you just mentioned, until just a few years ago. And we've had the opportunity to work with online education internally, contracting with what we would call an OPM.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Online Program Management firm, which is different than doing it all in-house.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, we've seen it from a variety of angles and it's been a great educational opportunity for me over the last few years, including taking some online classes, and teaching.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Most of my teaching has been face-to-face, but last year I taught my first online class and it was very interesting.

Meredith: It is. It's a different way of teaching.

Wyatt: Even though we're seeing high school students and traditionally aged college students taking online, for some, that's the very best thing for them, but most traditional age college students really want the face-to-face, on campus, full life experience. And where they're at in their personal development, it works perfectly, and that's why these on-campus experiences are so transformative. It's because the students come at this incredible, impressionable transition time of their lives, they come single, some of them leave married, some of them leave with kids, we hope they all leave with their first career job, and they kind of grow up, the same way that you and I did, Steve.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And then we've got this whole group of people out there that are already grown up. They're 30 or 40…

Meredith: Hundreds of thousands in Utah and tens of millions in the U.S.

Wyatt: Yep. That are trying to figure out how to get an education so that they can move through those golden doors of opportunity that a college degree affords them. But they can't do it. They don't have the privileges that some of us have. They can't walk away from life, their jobs, their families and move to a place like SUU which has such a rich residential experience. They still need to work from 8:00 until 6:00.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: They still need to put kids to bed. And even night school doesn't work for them, because night is actually, for some, the busiest time of the day when they're trying to help their kids do homework and get them off to bed. So, online becomes just an enormously important experience for tens of millions of people in America. It's their only option.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And so, what we've got is every university in Utah is offering online degrees. And colleges. Snow College and Salt Lake Community College, all the way up to the University of Utah, we're all doing it. And if we add them up…if you don't include the concentrations, you just look at the degrees, there's about 70 bachelor's degrees and then a whole bunch of master's degrees.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But unfortunately, we're all competing against each other and we're using state resources to do that. [Laughs] So, I think that what the Board wants me to do is bring everybody together, create this system that's collaborating with each other, save money for the taxpayer, increase opportunities for all of these people that need to be students or want to be students but can't without an online set of programs.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: That becomes a tricky job when you're negotiating with university presidents and the Legislature and the Board to come up with this system that makes everyone a winner, but everybody has to give up something at the same time.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: At least all the universities and colleges have to give up something at the same time. And then there's the question of the technical schools. They could be doing more in online than they are. So, anyway, that's the job. And in a way, as you asked, "Is this a promotion?" And the answer is, "Well, no, there is no such thing as a promotion from being president of Southern Utah University."

Meredith: A benign despot. There's nothing above that. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah. But this job that I'll be doing is, in essence, creating out of many or out of all of us kind of one system of online education, that hopefully will be delivered as a package to capture a lot of efficiencies and to really expand opportunities. It's going to be a very interesting, challenging opportunity for me.

Meredith: And as you look forward to that challenge, I'm sure your mind is also occupied, at least somewhat, on your time here as we've already sort of discussed. But I'm certain that you haven't had a lot of time to reflect back on your time here. Have you? It's probably been kind of a whirlwind and hasn't given you a lot of time to think about that.

Wyatt: No, I think it's going to take a long time. It's been, as I mentioned, Steve, it's been the most incredible experience. Kind of the climax of my professional life. And the opportunities that Kathy and I have had have just been exceptional. So, I think it's going to take me quite a while. First, to fully process the fact that I'm leaving, and it may not feel real until I hand somebody my keys. [Both laugh] I mean, some days I wake up and I think, "Was that a dream?"

Meredith: Yeah, I believe it.

Wyatt: Because it's been an entire life. But there's a few things that I've thought about as I reflect back, and probably one of the most informative periods of my time here has been during the 100 Day Listening Tour. You may remember that my first 100 days, I just devoted as much time as possible during the day, the night, the weekends to gathering information.

Meredith: I do. I didn't work here then, but I do remember that because I followed your career trajectory and I remember that being…having chatted with you during that time, how exhausting that 100 days was. [Both laugh] I just remember you saying, "I've never been this tired."

Wyatt: Yeah, I remember thinking that a hundred day listening tour needs to be followed by a hundred day sleeping tour. [Laughs] Because I'm trying to do the work that has to be done and then spending all day essentially listening and then in the evenings meeting with groups, with appointments starting virtually every day at 8:00am and then going into the evening. But from those times, I remember that I wrote down a list of probably 30 issues or so that came up during the listening tour. The one that I remember the most was "the cost of education is too high."

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And SUU had grown its tuition at a higher rate over the prior 15 years than any other college or university in Utah. So, it was an issue here and people felt it. So, we haven't raised tuition since that listening tour.

Meredith: That hasn't made you wildly popular in some areas I happen to know.

Wyatt: Yeah, well it's been really a meaningful thing to do.

Meredith: And we actually lowered tuition for online students.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: I should clarify, the first few years that I was here, the state had a mandatory tuition increase that applied to every school equally and then the presidents could propose an increase above that. And it was common that presidents would do that. We didn't propose any of those extra increases.

Meredith: And the state mandate has since gone away.

Wyatt: That's right.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's been gone for three years now, and so for the last three years, there's been no tuition increases. But the institution itself has not sought an increase the whole time I've been here, and we've decreased fees, we've decreased tuition for online students. What we've discovered is that sometimes online students are paying more than the face-to-face students. That's kind of backwards.

Meredith: Our tuition model was built to have students take at least 12 hours, and for all of the reasons that you mentioned, that online education is critical in the lives of the people who are engaged in it. Very often, they can't take 12 hours of credit and so our students were paying sort of a higher rate comparatively.

Wyatt: Yeah, that's right. They were kind of locked into a part-time higher per class.

Meredith: Right. So, we just made a flat rate. I shouldn't say we—you. I was engaged a little bit, but yeah.

Wyatt: But I think that that has shaped the way I see things. Someone referred to me as a "frugal innovator." And I like to think of that, actually. I'm more frugal in my business life than I am in my personal life—I don't want to suggest that I'm a frugal person all the way around—but I think we've tried very hard to manage budgets and be careful and recognize that if we start with how much money we have, we can't do everything, but we can certainly do all the important things. And there's never enough money, so it's always a decision of where you land on that. Another thing, Steve, that was really talked about a lot in my first 100 days was that we needed to pay more attention to our natural environment. SUU is the most central university to national parks in the country, and so we launched on a whole bunch of little things to try to capitalize on that. My favorite was SUU Day in the Parks.

Meredith: Oh, yeah.

Wyatt: Where we had…Guiness Book of World Records would not consider this the largest field trip because their definition of field trip was, "Everybody goes to the same place."

Meredith: I see, I see. Those Guiness guys.

Wyatt: I know! And I can see their logic, but if you're going to do a field trip on the public lands, you're certainly not going to take four or five thousand people to the same place.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, on the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, I'm trying to remember the number, but it seems to me like we were estimating just over 4,000 people—community, faculty, staff, students—went out on the public lands. The number that sticks in my head is 4,500. And we just went everywhere in small groups. We rented every tour bus we could find from Las Vegas north and got every vehicle out of our carpool and we had students on forest service, state parts, national parks, BLM land, everywhere doing service, learning…these were all faculty/staff led mini field trips. So, I'm claiming it as the largest field trip in the history of the world, even though I have to give it my own definition. [Laughs]

Meredith: That's right. It's true that we have even become known as the University of the Parks, right?

Wyatt: Yep, we trademarked that name.

Meredith: We trademarked that name, yeah.

Wyatt: Yep. There's a long list of things from the 100 Day Listening Tour, and I've never forgotten them. I don't have to sit back and think, "Oh yeah, what were those items?" Because most of them have been present in my thoughts all of the time in "How do we shape what we're doing? How do we build a better relationship with the community?" And you'll remember that we created a film about the founding of the university which the community did. That was really fun. Back Up the Mountain.

Meredith: Back Up the Mountain, yeah.

Wyatt: And some of the issues are perennial ones, like shared governance and communication and all those kinds of things, and we've made a lot of progress. And I'm sure that when the next president comes and does a hundred day listening tour, the next president will hear, "You need to work more on shared governance and communication," and all those things, because that's just a constant effort to do that. We live in a place, a university, where I like to say we have the smartest people in the world working here. We've got hundreds of PhD faculty members from every discipline imaginable, plus a lot of staff members that have PhDs or other significant degrees, and all of them have substantial life experience beyond their formal education. So, it's fun to be surrounded by so many interesting people. That's…and enthusiastic, optimistic people. You can't be successful on a campus unless you're an optimist. Because that's what we're about. That's our whole business.

Meredith: I think that if I were to say what I enjoy most about my job in higher education, it is exactly that. It keeps you optimistic for the future. And what we're doing for our students, whether they are face-to-face or online, is an act of hope and faith. I'm, like you, I'm very proud to be part of the SUU campus and very proud to be in higher education just generally.

Wyatt: Yeah. I'm really…I have to admit, I'm really honored to have been asked by the Board, my bosses, to take on this brand new initiative that seems really daunting.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Really difficult. It's exactly the kind of thing that I like to do is to take something really hard and try to figure out how to make it work, but what we've been talking about in terms of these brilliant students and the faculty and staff, this culture and environment that I've been able to spend my entire life with for the last, actually 14 years at two institutions. That is going to be hard for me to step away from. But if ever I'm just kind of tired or frustrated or feeling down, all I have to do is get out of my office and walk across campus and see all of the bright hopes of tomorrow and the people that are leading them there.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: To engage with our students and their mentors. It is always the best pick-me-up. I can't walk across campus without getting this feeling that the world is an amazing place and that whatever challenges or problems I'm trying to work with are minor in comparison to all of that. So, that's going to be a little challenging. We'll continue supporting SUU to the end of our lives.

Meredith: Right, I'm sure that's true.

Wyatt: And this new program is going to directly help students of Southern Utah University and the school itself, but when I get kind of tired or run down or discouraged about something or another, I'm going to have to find another way to do a pick-me-up because I'm not going to be able to just walk across campus and interact with students. So, that's going to be my task. But I have lots of friends here and I'm going to be calling you, Steve, constantly.

Meredith: I'll look forward to the discussion.

Wyatt: And it's so neat to have good relationships with students that want to stay in touch. Probably my favorite people from when I was an undergraduate student were a couple of the administrators and a faculty member that I've been able to stay a little in touch with. And every time I see them, it's a little bit of an emotional experience for me.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: Because I remember how influential they were for me. So, I'm going to stay in contact with as many as I can for as long as I have days.

Meredith: It is, as you say, transformational for both the students and for those of us that are the providers.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's certainly been transformational for me.

Meredith: Yep. Well, President, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners in the outro of our final podcast?

Wyatt: Well, this has been…this podcast, Steve, has really been an educational experience for us.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: 110 podcasts. That's…

Meredith: That's actually a lot compared to some, and it's a lot considering your schedule and mine. It sometimes was harder for us to get together than others, but I think we both view…you and I kind of posted on our Facebook accounts recently, that we were named a top 20 educational podcast by a group that ranks such things. And I don't know if that's top 20 out of 23 total or whatever. [Both laugh] You have to take those things with a grain of salt, but nevertheless, I think that the idea of two colleagues who are interested in improving higher education talking with others from around the country and around the world who have that same goal and desire doesn't sound revolutionary, but in many ways, I feel like it was. And even though you're going to be moving on to—not greener pastures, just different pastures, you're going to be moving on to a new position—I'd to think that not only has this been meaningful for you, but if you decide you want to start a podcast up again that maybe we would come back at some future date, perhaps in a slightly different format, but this has just been fun and I don't think it's been…it's had an enormous audience, but it's had actually quite a good sized audience when you consider the reasonably narrow niche of the discussion.

Wyatt: Yeah. You and I have been able to…you know, some of the podcasts it's just been you and a talking. A few. But we've had the opportunity to interview about 100 very interesting people.

Meredith: We have.

Wyatt: And it's always been a source of inspiration to me.

Meredith: And I'm always interested in the fact that we have listeners, literally, from every continent except Antarctica, I think. So, we get periodic updates about where our listeners come from. We have listeners in Australia and New Zealand, we have listeners in Asia, we have lots of listeners in Europe and of course throughout the United States, and especially in the western United States, but it's always interesting to me how many people are listening in far off lands and I hope that the discussions that we've had have been interesting for those who share similar positions to us who are considering making changes or considering what they should do next or considering the challenges of the day in higher ed, and there are many that we face, that perhaps our discussion about it has made them feel at least not lonely. You know what I mean? It can feel fairly lonely when you're contemplating what to do next. I'm sure you have had those types of experiences, and hopefully chatting about them with other leaders from around the country and around the world has been helpful. I know it has been helpful for me and I hope it has been for you as well.

Wyatt: Yeah, and I would just echo what you said, Steve. I hope that you, our listeners, have enjoyed this as much as we have. And because it's the last podcast in this form, I do hope that we quickly get back into the podcast in whatever version it is.

Meredith: Yeah, me too.

Wyatt: In the very near future. Summers are typically off anyway.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: But before I feel tempted to say goodbye, Steve, we need to close this podcast because I've still got a lot of work to do.

Meredith: You do. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: And we're not ready to say goodbye yet.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: But I will be gone before fall, and that's when the podcast would start up again.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, this has been…this is goodbye for now to the podcast audience. Thank you so much for listening, and we'll see what the future holds for us. And then over the next months as I make this transition…well, I'm never going to say goodbye because my new job is supporting SUU and the other universities in Utah, and colleges.

Meredith: Right. In many ways, you'll still be my boss. Just in a different building. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: We'll still be colleagues, that's for sure.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Thanks Steve, by the way.

Meredith: Thanks to you, President.

Wyatt: To our listeners, 95.6% of the work for this podcast has been done by Steve and his group who have put in a lot of time to organize, schedule, and then record and edit and transcribe and get this up on the web. So, thank you, Steve, and thanks to all of those that have been helping.

Meredith: President, I'm going to go ahead and enumerate those folks as we go out here, but you've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. This, our 110th and last episode in its current form, we wish to thank the following people who help us get this on the air every week. Bailey Bowthorpe from the President's Office who helped us schedule all of our various and very challenging calendars and helped us book the people that we had on the show; to Libby Meredith from our Online Teaching and Learning group for the audio editing that she has done under very challenging circumstances sometimes—you and I have recorded in very noisy, old hotel rooms and a bunch of other places; to Lexi Carter and Kenzie Lundberg from our Marketing and PR Office for the work that they do in helping us write about the podcasts; for Natasha Johnson who…Natasha is the fastest transcriber I've ever met. She turns around things amazingly quickly, so thanks to Natasha. And finally, to Jill Whitaker who is our IT person that flips the light on and delivers it to all of our distributing partners. Thanks to all of you, personally, from both President Wyatt and I for all of your hard work here. And especially to you, our listeners, thank you for listening and letting us into your hearts and ears for a while. And who knows? Maybe we'll be back again soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.