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Friday, February 9, 2007
A Utah Institute of Technology? Why Not?

The best idea I've heard lately is a little-discussed proposed direction for UVSC's future growth: a polytechnic university. (Think MIT, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, etc.)

I spent about 11 years of my adult life studying and teaching at major universities, and would still be doing the latter, had things in my life and the world at large gone a little differently. I was on campus long enough to appreciate that philosophical and administrative battles there can be long, bitter, hard-fought, complex, and very divisive, even while many students and the general public are largely unaware or uninterested. In many cases, careers, prestige, and massive amounts of money are at stake -- I don't mean salaries -- but, even when they are not, power, pride, and ideology provide sufficient grounds for a long and vigorous struggle.

Here in Utah County, Utah Valley State College (UVSC) has grown from the junior college it was when I was at BYU in the 1980s to a four-year college -- and a large one, at that. Like most schools, it has some very strong departments and some particularly weak ones, but the institution as a whole is thriving. Meanwhile, BYU is accepting fewer and fewer of the Utah County students who want to study there. So the pressure for UVSC to evolve into a full-fledged university is considerable and growing -- which means a massive amount of money really is at stake.

So it would be surprising if the usual wrestling over institutional direction and priorities were not considerably magnified at UVSC just now. In fact, it is. But instead of listing the evidence of this that is visible from the outside, or identifying the particular factions and their interests, my object today is to describe the fundamental question I would like to see debated. It has already come up, most recently in some letters to Utah legislators. But the sides don't seem evenly matched at the moment, so the subject is not yet getting the full and open debate it probably deserves.

Here's the question: Should UVSC evolve into yet another large liberal arts university, or should it grow in another direction -- specifically, into a polytechnic university? The powers that be seem to prefer the former. I myself am already fully convinced of the virtues of the broad, liberal education that produces well-educated people (not necessarily political liberals, that's a different use of the word), instead of just skilled workers. But I have found the case for a polytechnic university to be quite compelling since I first encountered the idea several weeks ago.

A polytechnic university is not a mere trade school (though trade schools surely have their place). It is a full-fledged research university which offers advanced degrees and emphasizes science, computing, engineering, architecture, and similar disciplines. Some such schools in the United States are among the best universities in the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) are the most prominent. The California state university system also includes polytechnic univeristies in San Luis Obispo and Pomona (Cal Poly and Cal Poly Pomona, respectively). There are others in this and other nations.

Proponents of a polytechnic future for UVSC note that there is no such university in the Intermountain West, that such an institution would complement the state's existing higher education system, and that UVSC's roots and current strengths are largely in technical areas, including the School of Technology and Computing. They note also that the costs of building and running such programs can be considerably higher than the costs of liberal arts programs.

In an increasely globalized modern world, where educational and economic competitiveness and scientific and technological leadership are major concerns, the advantages of a Utah Institute of Technology or a Utah Valley Polytechnic University seem self-evident. In a state budgetary environment where the biggest legislative question is how to spend a $1.6 billion surplus, the time seems right to consider very seriously the merits of this idea.

Virtually every good idea has its opponents. It appears that some entrenched and powerful factions at UVSC prefer another, less distinctive direction for the school. I also suspect that some other state schools would not welcome the additional competition. But this is a discussion we should have. It should be open, well-informed, serious, substantive, and thorough. And it ought to be soon.

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