From a county commissioner to students, community weighs in on selection of new SUU president

Rich Christiansen, co-chair of the SUU presidential search committee, speaks alongside fellow co-chair Nina Barnes at the Tuesday meetings to gather public comment, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 18, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITYWhen members of the recently formed presidential search committee for Southern Utah University gathered Tuesday to listen to the campus community, they were met with almost as many questions as suggestions. 

Search committee members take comments from community members, students, faculty and staff representing the diverse interests at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 18, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

How will the new president interact with students? What will they do to connect the university to its surrounding community? Who will the president represent? How will they view mental health and promote wellness on campus?

These questions and more were posed multiple times and in many different ways by students, university employees and community members. Fortunately for the search committee, many of the same people who asked the questions also offered examples of positive leadership and proposals for addressing these challenges – along with encouraging words for the committee members.

“Oftentimes there exists a divide between the student experience and the top brass, so to speak,” Sam Crittenden, chief of staff for the student association, said. “Finding people to proactively bridge that gap and become a part of student experience and invest personally their time in the lives of students makes a huge difference to the value of the student experience here at SUU and certainly has for me.”

Other comments from students, faculty and staff focused on making all students feel welcome and promoting wellness.

“In this new president, I would like for them to have a great understanding and ability to recognize that diversity, equity and inclusion is such a key component of our culture,” Jayson Matlock, assistant director of financial aid, said. “We’re growing not only in the types of programs and initiatives that we’re offering but also in our mindset, our vision and our culture.”

An undated file photo of students at SUU, Cedar City, Utah | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

The public meetings were held in two-hour increments beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Each meeting had a peak viewership of more than 90 participants joining remotely via Zoom and an additional 20-plus audience members present in the Sharwan Smith Student Center.

For community members and alumni in attendance, the chief concern seemed to be the president’s investment in the local community and their desire to make inroads with local leaders and other community institutions.

Iron County Commissioner Michael Bleak spoke at the afternoon meeting and expressed his desire that the search focus on alumni and other qualified individuals who have a commitment to SUU and an understanding of the local culture.

“I think it’s really important that the president be mindful and tied into those cultures, as well as local Native American culture, pioneer heritage and those types of things,” Bleak said. “Too often in SUU’s past the decision for positions has not necessarily been based on the best fit for the school or community.”

Bleak, who’s also currently enrolled as a student at SUU, brought up the challenges that the city and county face in working to meet the needs of students from a housing and safety perspective. 

Eight of the 21 members of the presidential search committee were in attendance at the morning meeting, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 18, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

Based on the comments of multiple faculty members and community representatives, the new president will be expected to balance the growth of the institution against maintaining quality instruction and a high standard of living.

Regarding innovation, multiple speakers praised the efforts of past presidents in advancing the university’s instruction and expanding academic offerings. Some speakers, including President Brennan Wood of Southwest Technical College, said they hope SUU would continue dual enrollment and online instruction that provides quality education at a reduced cost to many rural and low-income students.

The presidential search was precipitated by the June 2021 announcement that then-President Scott Wyatt had accepted a new position as Senior Executive Director of Statewide Online Education within the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Shortly after Wyatt’s departure, the Utah System of Higher Education selected Mindy Benson to serve as interim president until the formal process to select a new university president could be completed. At the time, Benson was vice president of alumni and community relations at SUU.

“If you look at President Wyatt and Interim President Benson, both of them have been heavily involved on campus,” said Hunter Bosgieter, a current student and member of the student programming board. “They’ve felt ‘down to earth.’ They’re always just walking about saying ‘hi’ to students, and they really get to know us. If that’s continued, I feel like it’ll help the school grow a lot as well as the community.”

Scott Wyatt, SUU president from 2013 to Jun. 2021, gives the welcome address to students for Fall semester 2018, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 20, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

The search committee is composed of 21 members and led by co-chairs Rich Christiansen of the SUU Board of Trustees and Nina R. Barnes of the Utah Board of Higher Education. In addition to those two interests, the committee includes community representatives, students and SUU faculty and staff.

“The next step for this committee will be putting together a position announcement,” Barnes said. “We will take all of this feedback and our own, and we will incorporate that into a document – it’s kind of a job description. Any comments you’re making the committee is hearing, and anything you send in will be incorporated into that position announcement.”

Once the announcement is finalized, the committee will put out a call for candidates. The Utah System of Higher Education has contracted the executive search firm WittKieffer to expand the candidate pool and assist in the vetting process. 

“We’re honestly being really careful in this stage to not come with pre-formed conclusions,” Christiansen said. “We’ve encouraged the entire committee, although everyone has their opinions, to really stay open and be really careful before we set the screening criteria. I think the student-centric focus and a lot of the things mentioned are on all of our minds, but we are being really deliberate not to just push an agenda.”

Along with the position announcement, the search committee will use the current strategic plan and suggestions received while screening applications and interviewing candidates. After narrowing the application pool to three to five candidates, the state board of higher education will select the new president.

All stakeholders are invited to submit their comments, questions and suggestions to the search committee via email at [email protected], or use the committee website to find out more about the process. According to a press release, The Utah Board of Higher Education intends to name a new president by the fall of 2022.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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