SALT LAKE CITY — This year's legislative session was a mixed one for higher education in Utah, defined as much by what did not happen as what did.
An initial proposed budget cut of 7 percent was whittled down to about 2 percent, about $18 million, although that will still force tuition hikes as enrollment continues to climb.
A message bill from Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, that would have allowed guns to be openly carried on college campuses was changed to focus on buffer zones around school grounds.
And an attempt to ban tenure for professors hired at the state's public colleges after July 1, 2011, died in committee.
Utah State University scored two victories with approval for a veterinary school and an addition to a business building.
The joint veterinary program will accept 30 students a year — 20 in-state and 10 nonresidents — who will take the first two years at USU and then two years of clinical studies at Washington State University."
"This new program will not only allow us to extend our role in addressing important state needs," USU President Stan Albrecht said in a statement, "but will also buttress other research endeavors on our campus through collaboration with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative and other USU programs."
The Legislature approved $1.7 million to get the program off the ground this year.
Until the last day of the session, it was unclear whether any higher education buildings would be approved. But USU's plan to add on to its business school had one advantage: $16 million in private pledges. Legislators decided to bond for $14 million to fund the rest of the project.
The state's other research school, the University of Utah, didn't fare as well as it missed out on even a portion of the $50 million it was seeking to update its aging electrical grid and to repair high-temperate water pipes like the one that failed in November, seriously scalding 12 workers.
Weber State University secured $31.5 million to build a new classroom building for professional programs, including its popular nursing degree at its growing Davis County campus in Layton. The facility will also house a charter high school.
The Utah College of Applied Technology's Tooele campus will get a new $10 million home. Lawmakers cut UCAT less than other areas of higher education, praising its job-training programs as a quick way to get people back to work.
And Salt Lake Community College received a $3 million down payment on a new site in Herriman for a campus focused on renewable-energy programs. The state is slated to eventually cover half of the $20 million land purchase, with other funding coming from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation.
In a legislative session that ended with a firestorm over access to public records, a bill snuck through with little attention that exempts a state-run college-savings investment fund, the Utah Educational Savings Plan, from open-records and open-meetings laws.
The fund, one of the most popular in the country for its low fees and tax incentives, now holds over $4 billion in assets, with 92 percent of investors living outside of Utah. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the measure was needed to keep UESP's investment strategies — its "secret sauce," as he called it — out of competitors' hands.
Legislators also extended financial oversight over private for-profit colleges, although any accredited school will be able to purchase an exemption.
Students at the public colleges will face tuition increases as state funding per student, which peaked at $6,400 in 2008, dips below $5,000. The U. announced its intention this week to raise tuition by 7 percent to 9 percent. Other schools will set their rates later this month for final approval by the Board of Regents at its March 25 meeting.
David Buhler, associate commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, was not surprised by the third straight year of cuts.
"The state's still coming out of a recession," he said. "People are still a little skittish, and understandably so."
Higher education officials say their goal for two-thirds of Utahns to have a college degree or certificate by 2020 will be difficult to achieve if funding does not come back.
Still, "It's been a very successful session all in all," Buhler said, noting the damage educators believe the anti-tenure bill would have had — and still could have, since lawmakers plan to study it in interim meetings.
"We would have had such negative publicity," he said. "It really would have been very tough to recruit the best faculty."
Looking ahead, a new "mission-based funding" scheme for higher education that the Legislature adopted this session will be fleshed out next year, with each institution receiving money to reach unique goals: retention and graduation for the research universities, growth for the open-enrollment colleges.
That bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, called it his most important piece of legislation in 11 years as a legislator. He argued that without defined missions, each school was functioning like a community college and chasing growth to get funding.
"How do we properly fund these institutions to do what we want them to do?" he asked a legislative committee. "The easiest way to affect outputs is to affect inputs."
Urquhart also won symbolic support for Dixie State College's plan to become a university in the next several years. The school says it will need $10 million for the transition, but no funding was available this year.
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