Episode 18: Southwest Tech Partnership

Brennan Wood, the president of Southwest Technical College, is on the podcast to discuss a new partnership between SUU and Southwest Tech.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hello again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, president of Southern Utah University. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: It’s good to see you, as always, and today we have an in-studio guest—someone that we’re very excited to talk about because we have a brand new relationship that we’re looking forward to exploring with them. Why don’t you go ahead and introduce him?

Wyatt: We’re happy to have Brennan Wood, president of Southwest Technical College, or Southwest Tech is kind of the way we talk about it, but welcome, Brennan. Thanks for joining us today.

Brennan Wood: Thanks for having me, glad to be here.

Wyatt: So Southwest Tech and Southern Utah University are about as different as two institutions could be. Southwest Tech is…how would you describe Southwest Tech ?

Wood: Southwest Tech is a technical college—and a lot of people don’t know what the world “technical” really means when it comes to education—but it’s the hands-on, it’s the trades, it’s really what we call the “boots on the ground” types of careers in the community, such as culinary arts (a chef), being a mechanic at an automotive shop, a truck driver, or a number of positions in health professions.

Wyatt: You don’t offer credit? College credit?

Wood: No credit. Our accrediting body is the Council on Occupational Education. We’re a seat-hour institution, and we offer credentials, so industry certificates.

Wyatt: Yeah, and Southern Utah University is a selective, regional comprehensive master’s university  with programs that include philosophy and anthropology. But we do have some technical kind of programs. Clearly, we’ve got things like aviation and flight program and those kinds of things, but we’re two organizations that are very different. But we have one thing in common and that is that we’re six blocks from each other. [Laughter] We’re in the same, relatively small community.

Meredith: Zip code. [Laughter]

Wyatt: Same zip code. We have completely different governing structures. We report up through different governing bodies. But we’ve decided that we’re going to try to find a way to—without changing governance, without changing our institutions—finding a way to get married. So those who register at Southwest Tech are entitled to register for classes at Southern Utah University, and those that are going to be admitted and enrolled at Southern Utah University can sign up for classes at Southwest Tech. And we each will give our own separate credit to the other. That’s the mission that we’re on. Pretty simple, don’t you think, Brennan? [Laughter]

Wood: I think it’s simple, but if you really think about it, how awesome is it…well first of all, a community this size has a university and a tech college. That is amazing, you don’t find that very often anywhere else in the country. So to take the two entities and to then, as you said, a marriage, a partnership that creates positive outcomes for the residents of this area is a great thing. And why haven’t we done it in the past? Well, that could be a long discussion. But today we’re doing it, and the future is bright for both the university and the college.

Wyatt: So let’s talk about what this collaboration does. One we’ve already mentioned—that if you’re enrolled in one school, you can go to the other.

Wood: You know, there are so many ways that you can look at this, and I look at it as we have so many of our automotive technicians or our plumbers that come to Southwest Tech with the goal to become a technician. Then, they ask us, “Well I want to own my own business. What is the next step?” That next step could be and should be business classes at the university. If you want to own your own business, you need some additional skills, you need some additional education, and now we have a smooth transition from the tech college to the university for those students.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we’ve got one example of this which would be in the hospitality management program in our business school, where students can start out at Southwest Tech in culinary arts and it just smoothly moves them into hospitality management.

Wood: That, and computer science as well. There are many, many examples that we can use, but the goal is for students both at the university and the tech college to have a skill set so that they can enter the workforce and be confident in their abilities. And even engineers could take advantage of welding classes or industrial maintenance. Business students could take advantage of 3D printing or CNC machining. Based on their interest and what they want to accomplish in a career, they now have that opportunity to smoothly go back and forth and really gain the marketable skill set that’s required to be successful in the marketplace.

Wyatt: Yeah, and our art students might be benefited by a welding class if they’re working on three-dimensional art or music students might be benefited by some of your business programs as they try to work on their entrepreneurial skills. And by doing this, a student at Southern Utah University can sign up at SUU, take classes, but then also walk 6 blocks, take a couple classes at Southwest Tech, and those might actually be part of the graduation requirements, or they might be electives, or they might help them as they build what we’re calling “badges”, which are special skills that might help them…

Meredith: Stacking credentials.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: I’m so excited about this—I’m sorry to jump in an interrupt—but I…the policy and philosophy that I’ve tried to follow my entire career in music education has been practical application of learned skills, and I’ve always thought that we did a terrific job of learning skills, but we were always light on the actual practical application of those skills in my particular area. I won’t speak for others, although I suspect that that may be a problem across the spectrum in universities. And having a place, and beautiful facility by the way, were we can go and have university students have a more practical, hands on experience as you just said, an engineer that’s been learning about something in theory in class can now come down and actually use that 3D printer or can actually take a class where they’re managing something that’s practical rather than merely theoretical.

Wyatt: Well, and it doesn’t make sense that we are redundant with each other. So Brennan, I think you’ve got about 2,000 students total?

Wood: That’s correct.

Wyatt: And we have about 10,000—just over 10,000—so it doesn’t make sense that we both teach welding, and it doesn’t make sense that we both teach certain other things when we’re so close and we’ve got this collaboration. And part of our hopes as we build this out is that everything flows to the student’s benefit. So if your tuition is less than ours and the student needs to take classes at both or wants to take classes at both, that student pays the lowest tuition depending on where they’re at.

Wood: Well, and I think it’s interesting too—and President Wyatt, I don’t think you’ve ever had a student change their mind about what they want to do while at the university [All laugh]—and I jokingly say that because we see that quite often. Students need the opportunity to explore while they’re at the university or the tech college. And then if it makes sense to take more classes at the university or at the tech college, based on their interest, we now give them that opportunity, which I think is so exciting. Offering more opportunities is a great thing to the student and I think will improve student outcomes.

Wyatt: Yeah, and I like to think of this hypothetical student who’s in the back of my mind, a student that’s getting ready to graduate from high school, she or he has not really thought much beyond high school—that’s a common situation—hasn’t really thought much, doesn’t know what to do, his friends are all going to Southern Utah University, so he just decides to go. Or all his friends are all going to Southwest Tech, and so he decides to go there. But once he gets to either of our schools, discovers that, “You know, maybe I should have thought this through and prepared myself for the time that I’m going to spend preparing for my career.” And what we’re hoping to do is put this student, all of these students, with a foot in both schools, so that if a student comes to Southern Utah University and after a few weeks or months says, “Wow, I am not ready for this.” That instead of sending them home packing, we say, “Hey, there’s a lot of opportunities out there, and Southwest Tech is like another one of our college divisions, and we’ll just transfer your tuition dollars over there, and why don’t you see if you can finish up the semester.” Or, as you’ve said, Brennan, the student starts at Southwest Tech, but starts and says, “You know, I really want to do this, but my larger goal is…” Or a student says, at SUU, “I really want to get this degree, but I don’t have enough money to do it, so maybe I can put both feet, each foot, in a different school and get a credential so that I can make a better income part-time to get me through school.” There are just so many ways that this could be helpful to students.

Wood: And I think it starts talking to students in 8th grade and as freshman in highs school and talking to them about the opportunities and the pathways that are available to them, and I think that that’s why not only this relationship is so strong, but our relationship with the local school districts is strong. And I think that’s so exciting because we’re talking to students at an early time, giving them opportunities and giving them direction. And we know that they’ll switch directions four or five times by the time that they get to us, but I think it’s creating those opportunities…and my vision, we’re hiring a recruiter in July that will recruit to not only Southwest Tech, but to the concept of the dual-enrollment program. The opportunity to take courses and classes both at the tech college and the university. So we’ll be promoting higher education in the region based off of their interest, not just based off of, “Go to the tech college,” or “Go to the university,” but “What is your interest? What is the pathway that you should take?”

Wyatt: Yeah, and I was visiting with one of our recruiters at Southern Utah University about this, and he got really excited. And, on his own without me suggesting anything about what he would do, he says, “Wow, when I’m out recruiting, I’ve got a whole list of new things I can talk to students about. I think if I can tell them that they can come and get certificates in welding or auto technology, I can draw more students in.” Because right now, we don’t have that to offer, and they don’t know anything about it. Yeah, it’s fun to think about all the possibilities. And as we’ve met—and we’ve met several times Brennan, and we’ve had our cabinet teams together and we’ve got everybody working on this—there’s frequently a question that comes up, “How do we do this?” Or “What do we do with this?” And you and I have had the same approach on every time this question has come up, and that is, we always start with, “Well, what would be the very best thing for the student?” And once we’ve answered that question, then we figure out how to make it happen.

Wood: And that’s really why we’re here. A lot of times, we think about all of the other things that happen on a daily basis, but at the end of the day, it’s the student, it’s providing the student with the education that is required for them to be successful in life, and when it comes down to the decisions that we make, it’s truly about doing the right thing for the student and for the economy as a whole, providing that workforce that will make us successful long-term.

Meredith: And lest everybody that’s listening think that the three of us have just completely lost our minds and there’s no actual feeling behind this whole thing on a larger scale [All laugh], we actually have recently received—President, is that right? I think some funding from both the Legislature and the Governor’s office to make this happen. In other words, this makes sense not only here in Cedar City, it’s making a great deal of sense to people in Salt Lake and other places that are responsible for funding both of our institutions.

Wyatt: Brennan, you pitched this to the Legislature during our recent session, and the outcome was?

Wood: We received an additional $200,000 dollars of ongoing funding to help the tech college with this process. And we are short on staffing in a couple of areas. The first is that connection between the university and the tech college, so we are going to hire what we are calling our SUU liaison to work closely on a day-to-day basis with the university on developing the curriculum and developing those partnerships to make that transition smooth, an additional recruiter, and some student service support that will be required on our end. That was very well received by the Legislature and they get it. It’s not one of those projects or concepts that you have to fight for. As soon as we start talking about this, they get it, they understand it, and they fully support it.

Wyatt: Yeah, and this was really embraced by the chair of our Higher Education Appropriation subcommittee, Senator Evan Vickers. He’s been a champion for helping make this happen. And then the Governor’s office, Governor Gary Herbert and his office have been really supportive and they’ve pledged some funds to us for consultant help in the short run to try to put this together. So we’ve got support from the Legislature and the Governor’s office and both of our boards.

Meredith: Which means lots of people are interested and we’re all in.

Wyatt: Yeah, we’re all in. [Laughter] We have burned our ships.

Meredith: We can’t fail now. [All laugh]

Wood: I’ve had a lot of Legislators over the last couple of weeks say to me, “Hey President Wood, I hear what you and President Wyatt are doing. We’re paying attention. We like what you’re doing.” And the good news is, they’re paying attention. The bad news is, they’re paying attention. [All laugh]

Meredith: Exactly. Now we’re going to have to actual do something. [Laughter] And we actually have recently done something, we’ve signed a memo of understanding. Why don’t you both of you talk a little bit about that—where it starts and what we think our initial phases will be?

Wyatt: So the beginning of the MOU is assessing credit, I think. That’s where we began is looking at all of the different certificate programs that you have at Southwest Tech, getting experts on our side and say, “This is worth this much credit based on competencies.” And once we’ve assessed the credit that we can give for all of the certificate programs, and there is a wide range of those programs, then we move into other phases of this, which is articulating programs that haven’t already been articulated and then finding ways that each program can help each other. Those seem to be the very first ones. Brennan, is that right?

Wood: It is. And what I really like about this MOU is the fact that we relate this, align this with our long-term strategic plans. This is not something that takes us away from our long-term vision. It’s very directed towards what we want to accomplish as two entities in higher education, and that’s having diverse populations, it’s reaching out to the local community, and it’s partnering with other state agencies. And so I think it’s exciting that we’re looking at the big picture as we focus on this particular project.

Wyatt: Well, and once we get through this first piece—and included in that, of course, is, “How do we actually register each other? How do we…Southern Utah University is a selective university so we have admission standards, and what we envision is that a student at Southwest Tech can automatically enroll, but if for some reason they don’t meet the admission standards, perhaps they can enroll but not as a full-time student. And then we just need to work out how it is that we make that transition or how we assess those things. And then the sky’s the limit. We’re hoping to find ways of providing all of the student life that either of us have to the other…Southwest Tech students could stay in our university housing and—we don’t know how to do this because our students pay a student fee for athletics—but we’re hoping that we can find a way that Southwest Tech students can have a student body card and come to our activities and just feel as much like one institution as we possibly can feel. And then there may be other opportunities. I used to work with cities and counties and it was interesting how they would all cooperate. And they would have inter-local agreements where the cities would do things together administratively, and we may find, as we get all of these first pieces done, that we may find some of these administrative things that we can cooperate with. I use as an example internal auditing. There’s a variety of those kinds of things that we may be able to find efficiencies for both of us. Those are out there a little ways, but the MOU contemplates everything from the beginning to where we might find ourselves long-term.

Meredith: And it was an exciting day to put pen to paper and actually see this thing start to take off.

Wyatt: Yeah. The signing ceremony included the Governor’s Chief of Staff, the chair of our Higher Ed Appropriations committee and trustees from both of our schools, the Commissioner... it was a good day, wasn’t it Brennan?

Wood: It was an exciting day. It was one of those days when you go home and you just sit down and take a deep breath and you say, “That was a good day, we accomplished something that was exciting.” And then my wife reminded me, “Now that was the kick-off event. That means that the work just starts, is that right?” And I said, “Absolutely. Now, we have to get really right into this and start the work.” But I’m excited about it. This has been a great time for the tech college and a great time, I think, for the community as a whole.

Wyatt: Brennan, our wives are both smarter than we are.

Wood: Of course, yes. [All laugh]

Wyatt: But I’ll add to something here, and that is—I think that this is a fundamental issue—and that is that half the work is deciding to do it. And there is, in our state and in the nation, there is considerable competition between institutions, competition between the different structures. The technology schools and the universities in Utah have not always gotten along great. So what we’ve done so far seems to me in some respects to be half the work. To just commit and to get in the same room and to be so enthusiastically together on this. I think that’s a hurdle that we’ve surpassed.

Wood: And I like the fact that…I like that thought that half the work is done. I think that’s a great way to look at this and I do agree with you that it’s really the best interest of the student that we work together. It makes perfect sense that we build and use our strengths as two individuals systems and I think it only improves our status as a university and as a tech college.

Wyatt: You have an EMT course, don’t you?

Wood: Yes, EMT and EMT Advanced.

Wyatt: I was talking to a student the other day about this project, and she said to me that her friends come over to Southwest Tech and take the EMT program. And I said, “Well, if you decide to do this next year, you can probably get college credit as an elective. Or, if you’re pursuing allied health, it might actually be something you could do towards your degree. Or maybe it would fit into something in general education.” We don’t really know, do we? It’s so fun to have these questions.

Meredith: Well, it is. And sometimes when we are working on this podcast which we call Solutions for Higher Education, it’s sometimes a little bit of a stretch for us to pull back to what our solution actually was for the day. But this whole day, this whole discussion is a solution for higher education. The getting out of our silos, the ideas that rather than being competitive, particularly to entities in a small town, that they can pool their resources and do what is best for students who may be—who are, not may be—who are certainly at that tipping point in their lives where they’re trying to decide exactly what they’d like to pursue next is…that’s the whole reason all of us got into this business I think is this kind of working together and cooperation. It’s just sad that it’s so rare, but it’s very exciting that we’re undertaking it.

Wyatt: Brennan, you used to be an economic development director.

Wood: That’s right.

Wyatt: If you were to go back a bunch of years to the time that you were local government economic development director in this community, what’s your sense of this program?

Wood: I think employers will love this concept. When they look for an expansion project, they’re looking into a market, typically, their number one concern is, “Where is the workforce coming from? Where is that skill set? And if you don’t have it, how do you produce that skill set?” And if they see the tech college and the university working together to develop that skill set for industry, we’ve addressed their number one concern as an expanding company. And this is true across the country, Employer are looking for the future workforce and that future skill set, and this relationship, this memorandum of understanding, really aligns how we want to accomplish developing that workforce of the future. So I would be, as economic development director, or as a former director, very excited about this concept.

Wyatt: We want our students to have several things. We want them to have specific skills that help them with what they’re doing. And we also want them to have the soft skills such as written communication, oral communication, problem solving, critical thinking…I remember being out at a mine and having the HR director say to me, “What we really want is somebody that can weld, but they’ve got to be able to read our manuals. [Laughter] “And that means that we really want them to take chemistry and we really want them to have experience reading difficult things.” I think that this collaboration that we’re doing is going to have unlimited benefits. Things that we haven’t quite yet imagined are going to come out of this. And it might be helpful to those listening who don’t know, we are in Cedar City, Utah and there are about 30,000 residents of Cedar City. And Cedar City fits within Iron County which is a rural county and there are about 50,000 residents in Iron County. So we’re in a relatively rural place, depending on from what city you were born. We’re a big city for some of our students. [Laughter] But we’re a rural place. Any last thoughts?

Wood: I just think that this is a great partnership and the fruits of this partnership will be long lasting. It not only drives the local economy, but it drives student outcomes. It’s a great thing and I’m just excited to be a part of it and I appreciated the university in being so open and having these conversations. And of course, thank you for having me today to talk about this great and exciting project.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott Wyatt, president of Southern Utah University. We’ve been delighted to have as our in-studio guest today President Brennan Wood of Southwest Technical College. Thanks for listening, bye bye.