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Western Governors University















There was neither precedent nor blueprint in 1995 for creating an accredited, totally online university that awarded degrees based on competency rather than seat time. Western Governors University (WGU) was a “disruptive innovation,” as I termed it in the early days, before the university even had a name.

The concept of WGU germinated shortly after I became governor, but my immersion in education policy, and the formulation of ideas aligning education with technology, started earlier—with the help of a coin toss.

A bit of backstory is necessary. Following Governor Norm Bangerter’s election as governor in 1984, I was appointed to the Southern Utah University (SUU) Board of Trustees. At the first meeting I attended, a new chairman needed to be elected. I was nominated along with Donel Horlocker, a trustee from Logan, Utah. A secret ballot resulted in a tie vote; the process was repeated but produced the same result, so Donel and I suggested we resolve it with the flip of a coin. I won, becoming chairman of the Board of Trustees. And that coin flip set off a chain of events that proved pivotal to my emergence as a political figure.

As chair of SUU’s trustees, I interacted often with the Utah Board of Regents, the statewide board that oversaw the entire system of higher education in Utah. In the spring of 1988, the regents’ leadership, in league with the business community, asked me to co-lead the opposition campaign against a ballot initiative proposed by a group of conservative Republicans. The proposal would have cut Utah taxes by 25 percent across the board—a serious blow to an already underfunded system. The details of that campaign are covered in chapter 25 of the first volume of my history. But my work in defeating the initiative was critical to Governor Bangerter’s reelection. I believe it was in part because of this that Norm appointed me to the Board of Regents the following July.

As a regent, I was appointed to a legislatively created strategic-planning task force that spent multiple years discussing the future of K-12 education in Utah. During this time, I began to realize that I liked public policy and had an aptitude for it. I found camaraderie in the experience and, perhaps most importantly, I felt deeply invested in the public good that could come from the solutions we were knitting together. I felt engaged in something bigger than myself, and later ownership when the strategic plan we were developing was implemented. This was one of the key experiences that led me to run for governor.

Naturally, once I declared my candidacy for governor of Utah, the Utah Education Strategic Plan became a cornerstone of my campaign platform, particularly on two principles: First, the plan focused intensely on emerging information technologies as a means of expanding capacity and access. Second, it focused on the need to measure student progress through competency development rather than just credit hours.

My leadership on the tax initiatives, being a member of the education strategic planning task force, and the personal relationships I had built within the education community played a critical role in my being elected governor, because through those I gained an important endorsement from the Utah Education Association. I continued to champion the causes of education, but also began to see more clearly the various problems within the system.

Traditional Methods vs. New Ideas

The eight years I was involved in the governance of higher education also gave me a strong sense of the culture of higher education institutions. While I developed great respect for remarkably talented people, I also observed how process-oriented traditions, academic rank, tenure, and a touch of elitism were detrimental to the higher education system. I could also see flaws in the business model; as a regent I often raised questions about how the business model of higher education could be sustained over time. Tuitions continued to rise, pushing student debt to increasingly higher levels. The state’s capacity to subsidize the cost of higher education was being diminished by competing budget demands.

Then I came to be suspicious of higher education’s fascination with new buildings. Each legislative season, university and college presidents would align with legislators to compete for funds to buy and build new buildings, which would then be relished as trophies and legacy pieces. But these trophies came with a price: every building increased the cost of running the campuses, and college campuses were already underutilized. Most classes were in the mornings, so many buildings were empty in the afternoon. Because higher education had also succumbed to the same agrarian calendar as public education, most campuses were ghost towns during the summer months and for weeks at a time during holidays.

In addition, nearly every school, college, or university at that time used the Carnegie credit system, the standardized measuring unit of education credit, based on time rather than what a student has actually learned. Each university creates a currency called credit hours, which are based on time spent in a class taught by a professor or instructor on their faculty. Students are awarded letter grades to determine how well they did and obtain degrees by accumulating the required number of credit hours. I did not think this was a very effective way for students to actually learn the material.

It also troubled me that at most large universities, teaching was secondary to research. Undergraduate education was conducted as a high-margin endeavor designed to subsidize the graduate schools. Yes, graduate schools are important, but teaching often gets short shrift in the process.

I did my best to make changes to the flaws that I saw in the higher education system. During my first year as governor, I made a rather feeble effort to slow the number of new higher education buildings. I went to the Board of Regents and told its council of presidents I would not be supporting any building expansion. It did not go over well; they were polite to the new governor but clearly not deterred. To be fair, it was also a time of exploding demand in college enrollments. But it was clear to me that the new-buildings flywheel had been turning for a long time, and neither the institutions nor the legislators who supported them viewed limiting facility growth as a viable option. I needed a different strategy—and with the internet in its early stages, I was drawn to its possibilities.

Utah’s system of higher education had been a leader in distance learning. Our state had developed EDNET, which provided closed-circuit television capability for students to attend classes electronically throughout the state. They used a dedicated channel, KULC-Channel 9, to allow those classes to be broadcast to the entire population. Given the technology available at the time, higher education could rightly be proud of those efforts. However, it was not television I was dreaming about. I wanted to drive higher education to the internet—a fairly futuristic notion at the time.

After the 1993 legislature adjourned, LaVarr Webb and I began to really think about the internet and how it could tie into higher education. It would be giving us too much credit to say we could see that the internet would become the backbone of modern life. However, we were totally convinced that it was going be essential infrastructure and that it could be used to bring startling new efficiency to state services and education. I knew the internet would be essential because of my own personal experience building a private network for my business in the late 1980s using dedicated data lines. And all that expensive data line infrastructure could be made widely available through the internet.

The Bicycle Speech, Foreshadowing WGU

The possibilities for higher education and the internet were exciting, and in July 1993 an opportunity arose to present my ideas about merging the two. The legislature and education community had scheduled a summit on education that summer in Cedar City at Southern Utah University. I was invited as governor to speak.

It was the perfect event for a new governor to lay down markers on the future. The entire state legislature was at the summit as part of their interim meetings, as were the Board of Regents and various boards of trustees from the individual institutions. They were joined by the State Board of Education and various local school boards. We accepted the invitation and then upped the stakes by announcing I would be delivering a major policy address. To increase the impact, we arranged for KUED Channel 7, a public television station, to carry the speech live.

This speech was not only my opportunity to showcase and organize the ideas LaVarr and I had discussed but also the start of putting together the policy, as writing a speech is often the process of devising the policy. I took time off at the family ranch in Loa to recharge and compose the speech. LaVarr and Vicki joined me a few of those days to help with the speech, the three of us working out of the basement of the Road Creek Inn.

It was a complicated speech to write because we were describing a future we could only imagine. At several points, we had discussions about whether we were overreaching—I remember saying, “This stuff is really out there.” I was worried that we would seem out of touch and too fanciful. Looking back, it was a logical fear, but hindsight demonstrates we were timid. The horizon we described was much closer than it seemed.

I delivered what people sometimes refer to as “The Bicycle Speech” on July 14, 1993. It was built around a metaphor of the differences between the serviceable, mono-geared red Schwinn bicycle I used to deliver papers as a kid and the versatility of 21-speed bikes. The speech laid out three core challenges to our state’s education community. The first challenge was to make education an activity unbound by buildings, place, or space:

Schools and campuses must facilitate, direct and enhance the learning process, but need not always be the location where learning takes place. We must get used to the idea of students learning at home, in dorms, at libraries, other community centers, and at work, not just in college or school classrooms. . . .

To do this, we must make a major shift, a historic shift, in our basic strategy. We must invest less in bricks and mortar, and more in technology.

Second, I challenged education leaders and legislators to raise their sights and expand technology-based education to a vastly larger universe of learners—making it part of every student’s education experience:

With distance learning we serve thousands. But this is a new vision. A system that serves not thousands, but hundreds of thousands. Not just the students whose unique circumstances create special needs, but a system that serves every student.

I challenge higher education to make available all courses necessary for general associate degrees through technology by the end of 1996. I also challenge you to expand the number of high-demand bachelor’s degrees delivered through technology.

Finally, I turned to an early version of my thinking on competency-based learning, challenging the system at every level to pick up the pace in education.

“Our system is defined too much by an institutional pace rather than the abilities or circumstances of individual students. For example, many young people waste their senior years in high school. We need to create incentives, financial and other, for high schools to move students though the system as quickly as the student has the capability to move. When a student has mastered high school curriculum, they should go on to college level courses or vocational training.”(1)

"We must invest less in bricks and mortar, and more in technology."

Obviously, the basic elements of Western Governors University were foreshadowed in that 1993 speech. However, I was still thinking educational institutions could heal themselves by reason, vision, and some money.

The Bicycle Speech created the desired stir. Some saw it as an opportunity, others as a threat, and still more just thought it was not relevant to them. Still, my administration’s mission for education had been articulated, and we began to move forward.

Early the next year in 1994, the legislature authorized the start of infrastructure improvements that would begin the expansion of internet access across the state. I also began working with the universities and colleges to implement the vision expressed in the Bicycle Speech.

By the spring of 1995, I could see progress being made on the technological infrastructure, but it was becoming evident to me that the rate-limiting factor would be the development of education content and method. Nearly all the technology-delivered education offered in the state of Utah at the time was delivered through a synchronous model where students attended a class, at the same time it was happening, in special wired classrooms around the state. As someone else described it, we were “paving the cow paths.” I could see that this way was not effective. It might achieve a ten percent improvement—but I was after a tenfold multiple.

Dr. Clara Lovett

I became aware that other states had similar approaches to distance learning. Arizona was one; the state has many rural areas and had given Northern Arizona University (NAU) the lead role in expanding and modernizing those efforts. It was through NAU that I met an important ally in the fight to improve higher education—Dr. Clara Lovett. And it was somewhat by accident.

Gerald R. Sherratt, the president of my alma mater, SUU, called me to ask a favor. Would I be willing to advocate for the entry of SUU athletic programs into the Big Sky Conference? I agreed. Dr. Lovett was the chair of the Big Sky Conference, so she was the one I needed to meet with. When I determined I would be flying to Phoenix for those meetings, I decided to also explore some ideas I had about states cooperating in the development of technology-based education.

I would describe Dr. Lovett as an academic’s academic; she is direct and speaks with clarity and precision, colored with a charming Italian accent. After we had compared notes on the progress and challenges of our respective state systems, I posed a question to Dr. Lovett: would it make sense for state-financed institutions in various states to work collaboratively to develop and share the weight of developing technology-delivered learning? Her response was profound. “Yes, that would make a lot of sense. However, there are four reasons it won’t work: regulation, bureaucracy, tradition, and turf.” While I could tell it vexed her to say it, she was clearly speaking from experience.

I left Flagstaff, Arizona, that day a fan of Clara Lovett. She had taught me an important lesson about the likelihood, or rather, unlikelihood, of being able to create a new technological system of education through existing state colleges and universities. Dr. Lovett and her influence became a cornerstone in the building of Western Governors, a new kind of university.

Conception of an Idea

A few months after I spoke with Dr. Lovett, the June meeting of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) was held in Park City, Utah. I was chair of the association that year. The agenda included a governors-only lunch on the first day, where we could discuss issues that we had been thinking about. I used this setting to test my hypothesis that other governors would be concerned about the sustainability of the current financial model used by higher education. If they were, I planned to share my idea for a new concept.

The response to my question was instantaneous and clear. I was not alone in my concern. Others joined in, especially Roy Romer, the Democrat governor of Colorado, who spoke passionately about the fact that universities measure the wrong thing. “They measure time, not performance,” he said. Roy referenced his experiences in business, comparing the academic credit system—where, even after the completion of credit hours and the awarding of degrees, businesses still had to retrain college graduates—to the certainty that comes in pilot training. He said, “If you want to get a pilot’s license, there are absolute standards you have to pass. And if you are paying me to train you, then I know I’m getting the job done. The tests are critical. I’ve got to be damn sure you know what you’re doing, or you’ll kill somebody.”(2) Roy basically stated what I was feeling: why give so much money to these colleges and universities when employers had to retrain graduates anyway?

I then laid out the big “what if” question: what if the Western Governors’ Association formed a new university? It could be technology based— delivered entirely over the internet using quality content developed anywhere.

Roy spoke up again, in essence saying that if we wanted this, the new university would need to measure student progress by how much people learned, not how much time they spent in their chair.

Eleven governors from throughout the West had attended that session and nearly all of them spoke. It was a robust conversation, and the idea clearly resonated. It was discussed in each of our private meetings during the three-day gathering.

At the conclusion, Jim Souby, the WGA executive director, was instructed to prepare a paper on the viability of the idea for discussion at the next meeting, which was to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada, the following December. We agreed, too, that each governor would invite to the next meeting both a key member of the business community and the commissioner of higher education from their state.

"What if the Western Governors’ Association formed a new university?"

When that mid-year meeting convened in Las Vegas, the concept paper, written by the WGA staff and a group of consultants they hired, fleshed out the simple idea we had articulated in Park City the previous June. And as agreed, representatives from each state’s business community were there, as well as the leader of each state’s higher education system. It was a meeting bound to create sparks.

“Virtual University” Emerges

I invited Cecilia Foxley, who was the commissioner of higher education in Utah, and Eric Schmidt, the young and well-respected CEO of Novell, a prominent Utah technology company. Eric and I had become good friends. He knew of my interest in how to apply technology to education and had expressed support.

Responses to the paper and ideas were predictable and divided. The business community representatives spoke in respectful tones of higher education but also voiced their frustration with the way universities and colleges intrinsically operated. Unsurprisingly, the commissioners of higher education saw the idea as a threat. These commissioners, all sitting next to the governor of their states, were in a difficult position. They were being asked to critique an idea that the higher education community would undoubtedly view as competition. The higher education representatives cautiously raised questions about diluting scarce state resources and emphasizing the need for quality.

The general tone of the meeting can be captured by two specific exchanges I remember from the meeting. One state’s higher education commissioner read from an essay that referenced higher education’s role of preparing students to “soar like eagles into the future.” When he finished, Roy Romer said, “I’ll tell you this, I’m not sure who will help students soar like eagles, but it’s not likely to be those who take summers off and have three weeks of vacation at Christmas.”

The commissioners then brought up the labyrinthian topic of accreditation and walked the governors through it. There were seven regional accreditation bodies, and each had a full-time staff of people who oversaw the process. However, the developing standards against which an institution was evaluated, the actual inspection, and the final decision on accreditation were all made by small, appointed groups of respected academicians who worked part-time as accreditors in addition to their work at their own college or university. It was also made clear that each of “the regionals,” as they were collectively called, did not have the same standards. They decided on their own who was worthy to be called accredited.

Through this rather sobering conversation, it became clear that forming a university took a lot more than creating a corporation and hiring faculty. What was most daunting was the realization that the judge and jury in accreditation were those who viewed themselves as the keepers of the very traditions we were out to disrupt.

At the conclusion of the Las Vegas meeting, the governors voted to proceed to the next steps, which involved fleshing out the plans described in the concept paper and drafting the founding documents. It was agreed that at our June 1996 meeting, six months later, a go or no-go decision would be made.

It was the theoretical launch of WGU, with a small splash rather than a giant wave. A short, Associated Press article in the Denver Post on December 2, 1995, was headlined: ‘“Virtual university’ is goal of governors.” The article quoted me and Governor Romer.

“The world changed just a little, tiny bit today,” I said. “There will be in the future access to relatively low-cost high-quality instruction . . . and people will find it appealing.”

Roy was more lavish. “It’s a system based upon the student, based on competency, not credits,” he said. “It’s revolutionary.”(3)

A Bipartisan Partnership

Coming out of the WGA meeting in Las Vegas, Roy Romer and I agreed to serve as the lead governors on the project. I knew Roy well because we had worked together closely on welfare reform and Medicaid at the National Governors Association. We had spent hundreds of hours under intensely partisan circumstances. We were very different— both in age and ideology—but we understood each other and were aligned in our objectives. Michael Goldstein, an early general counsel and corporate secretary of Western Governors University, described our relationship this way:

It was absolutely extraordinary. Mike Leavitt looked like he walked off the top of a wedding cake and Roy Romer looked like he just finished plowing the fields on his farm. But they worked together astonishingly well. Leavitt, a classic conservative, was a techy interested in solving issues of time and distance. Romer was a social progressive, always asking, ‘How do we make this accessible?’ How will it give people value?’ They set aside their political differences to get things done.(4)

Ben Nelson, the governor of Nebraska and the incoming chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, and Jim Geringer, governor of Wyoming, were both willing to be actively involved. Governor Geringer was pure Wyoming. A rocket scientist by training, he had an Air Force career before returning to Wyoming, where he gravitated toward politics via the Wyoming Legislature. He nearly always wore western boots and a cowboy hat. He spoke with a distinct western inflection that made him seem bigger than life. Once, the two of us were standing at a National Governors Association event in Vermont. A woman approached Jim and, pointing to his hat and western vest, asked, “Why are you in costume tonight?” Jim’s keen sense of humor took over. “Ma’am,” he responded, “in Wyoming, this is called business casual.”

Like Roy Romer, Ben Nelson also played a prominent role in my history as governor. Ben was my partner in the development of the Conference of the States. In addition to our common views on federalism, Ben and I shared a history in the insurance industry, as he was commissioner of insurance in Nebraska before being elected governor.

We were ready to start working. We had a great team and $400,000 that executive director Jim Souby had developed in reserves within the association’s budget to provide initial staff support and necessary consultants.

Over the next two months, our WGA team devised an eleven-point plan to build this new version of a university. It was published in February 1996, referencing the product as a “virtual university.” In absence of an institution or name, this description gained traction. We eventually learned that the word virtual in reference to the university did not serve the effort well—but who could have known? We were pioneering.

Formative Years (1996–1997)

The months between the December 1995 WGA meeting and the June 1996 meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, were busy ones for me. Not only did I have my own legislature in session in addition to duties in Washington, D.C., but I spent much of February through May in 1996 flying to other western states, working to ensure the support of the necessary governors and their state legislatures. I wanted to make sure we had the votes required to move forward in June.

But the biggest hurdle we had to jump was finances. WGA would not have sufficient reserves to finance development after the June meeting, so we decided to ask each state to provide $100,000 to finance the next phase of development. Getting ten legislatures to appropriate $100,000 for a virtual university is the hardest money I’ve ever had to raise.

First, we had to ensure it was in the governor’s budget, and more importantly, we had to ensure the legislators understood it. Candidly, most of the governors were all for it, but they were not close enough to the project to explain and defend it. So, I offered to meet with their legislatures, and the governors welcomed my offer. My schedule limited the actual number of states I visited, but there were at least eight I was able to get to. I attended legislative hearings, met with higher education committee members, and essentially became a lobbyist to get this done. Naturally, the higher education community in each of the states thought this was a crazy idea. Even though it was a small amount of money, they viewed it as coming right off the top of their appropriation.

As I recall, there were sixteen states and a handful of territories who were members of WGA at the time. We aspired to have all the states sign a memorandum of understanding supporting the creation of the institution, even if they had to do so conditionally. On my way to the meeting, I reviewed with my team the list of governors we could expect to sign. With a little nudge here and there, it looked like we could get a dozen or more.

Not surprisingly, California chose not to sign. I worked hard to get them on board, but it was not to be. California felt they could do it better themselves. (Which they probably could have, but they didn’t.) We accepted it and moved on. Governor George W. Bush of Texas did not sign the memorandum initially, but he became an important supporter later though his policy director, Margaret Spellings. They also contributed the $100,000 initial assessment. This turned out to be a critical relationship when, four years later, Bush became president and Margaret was his second secretary of education.

There was, however, a significant matter that had not been decided—a name for this institution. The governors had debated this question for months, and we finally decided on a set of principles: First, the name should showcase the western regional nature of the institution. Second, it should demonstrate collaboration among states. And finally, the name should reflect the commitment of the governors as initiators and leaders of the institution.(5)

We had rejected fifteen different specific names at that point, and I was told the lawyers needed an answer to the question as soon as we landed in Omaha so they could plug a name into the documents to be voted on the next morning. So, still airborne between Salt Lake City and Omaha, I made the call—Western Governors University. The name we had liked best was Governors University because it would have more easily allowed the institution to operate nationwide, but there was already a Governors College in Illinois. Western Governors University still fit the criteria we had set out, and its legacy would reflect those who organized it. When we landed, the lawyers were called, and nobody questioned the decision.

The next day, June 24, 1996, ten state governors stood together—all wearing identical WGU sweatshirts, which had been hurriedly purchased at an insignia story in Omaha—and signed a memorandum of understanding.

We hereby . . . join together through this Memorandum of Understanding to initiate such steps as may be necessary to the establishment of . . . Western Governor University (hereafter “WGU”), which will, through the use of appropriate advanced technologies and educational practice, provide expanded access to high-quality postsecondary education and competency assessments and skills certification. . . .

We the undersigned agree as follows to:

. . . Take such measures as are appropriate to create a policy environment that supports the goals of WGU, including identifying and eliminating unnecessary barrier to or burdens upon the delivery of quality educational services via telecommunications and to the recognition of degrees and credentials obtained through such delivery systems.(6)

It felt like a big moment, but the work had just begun. A headline the next morning in The New York Times provided a peek into the challenges we faced: “Virtual University Will Offer Authentic Degrees by E-Mail.”(7)

Incorporation, Trustees, and More Planning

The memorandum of understanding signed in Omaha that day was essentially an expression of joint aspiration and commitment. No legal entity existed yet called Western Governors University. We needed to create one, as well as a group of trustees to guide its development. A search led us to Mike Goldstein, an education lawyer who lived in Washington, D.C., and who had extensive experience in the legal structure and governance of higher education institutions. He began doing legal research on the best way to form an institution that was entirely technology delivered and that used competency measurement to advance students.

Roy Romer and I had to put a short pause on our activities as lead governors after the Omaha meeting; I was up for reelection in November, and Roy, while not on the ballot himself, was deeply involved with the reelection of President Bill Clinton. Once the elections were over, we turned ourselves back to the effort of building WGU. The two of us signed the Articles of Incorporation shortly after my inauguration to a second term in January 1997, and an interim Board of Trustees was formed.

That same month, Roy was nominated by President Clinton to lead the Democratic National Committee. While this affected the time Roy could allocate to the project, it did not diminish his commitment. Despite the new demands, he continued to make great contributions.

Even with many other responsibilities, governors Romer, Nelson, Geringer, and I agreed to be on the Board of Trustees, which was finalized later that year. This was our signal to any doubters within the higher education world that WGU was a serious effort. We took great care and a lot of social capital to assemble a “dream board” of governors, academicians, tech-company leaders, and philanthropists.

• The four governors were Leavitt, Romer, Nelson, and Geringer, representing the founders.

• David Gardner, a former president of the University of California and University of Utah; Dr. Clara Lovett from Northern Arizona University; Sam Smith, president of Washington State University; and David Powers, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission on Post-Secondary Education, representing the universities.

• Eric Benhamou, the chief executive officer of 3Com Corporation; Eric Schmidt, CEO at Novell Inc.; Barbara Gordon, vice president of global accounts at Sun Microsystems; Anne-Lee Verville, former general manager of global education industry at IBM; and Rick Bailey, vice president of federal government affairs at AT&T Corporation, all representing an important constituency, information technology companies.

• Frank Mayadas of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one of our earliest major donors and a philanthropic heavyweight.(8)

While a Western Governors’ Association team had been driving the project forward up to that point, they had exhausted their economic reserves and needed to turn their attention to other things. We needed to develop a WGU team, a detailed academic vision, and financing for the university.

Though several states pledged $100,000 to capitalize the effort, most of them needed to have the appropriation approved by their legislature during the 1997 session. That money trickled in over time. Honestly, I am not sure whether every state met the commitment. As a result, cash was scarce. To conserve the little cash we had, Roy Romer and I decided to each assign a person from our staffs to work full time on WGU. I offered Dr. Jeff Livingston, my education deputy. Jeff had taken leave from Weber State University, where he was a professor, to join my administration. Romer tapped Dr. Bob Albrecht, who was an administrator at the University of Colorado. The month after formation of the WGU, Jeff Livingston was appointed chief executive officer and Bob Albrecht became the first chief academic officer.

Bob and Jeff began their work by reenlisting the services of two key consultants who had been major contributors to the concept papers used by the governors: Dr. Sally Johnstone from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

In speaking of her work in the early design of WGU, Dr. Johnstone said:

It couldn’t replicate what already existed in state universities. We weren’t going to create new courses. We needed to fully integrate technology so that this would be a real twenty-first century university. And it needed to be competency-based to meet the needs of the workforce.

The whole notion was based on research—we didn’t make this up. We looked at models all over the world of what worked and what didn’t. The next thing was figuring out how to turn this thing into reality.

Dennis Jones had been a long-time advocate of competency measurement.

The notion that students should be judged on the basis of what they have learned, not the number of courses they have taken—lies at the heart of WGU. This was one of the marching orders from the governors from Day One. Additionally, we will measure skills, not courses, or seat time. This will be the biggest shift from traditional higher education.(9)

The Fundraising Grind

As Bob and Jeff worked on the academic vision, I was figuring out how to pay the bills. I enlisted Max Farbman, a close friend who had been deeply involved in helping me raise money during my election campaigns. Max was a prominent Utah attorney, but he was also a gifted fundraiser and networker. Max just glows with an infectious enthusiasm that draws people in.

It should be noted that without a $500,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 1996, right after the memorandum of understanding was signed, our work could not have continued. It is a great example of how much of a difference skilled philanthropic organizations can make. There were organizations that provided more funds, but none that had more impact. Timing is everything, and that donation from the Sloan Foundation came at just the right moment.

Max Farbman aptly summarized the uphill nature of the effort.

WGU was a start-up in every sense of the word. There was nothing like it, and it was not well understood. Remember, this was in the late 1990s, back in the Middle Ages as it relates to technology. At that time, the only community that I thought would get this would be Silicon Valley.(10)

A start-up venture is exactly what WGU was at that point, and Max Farbman and I were scrambling to keep enough money in the bank account to meet payroll. I am grateful that I had a background in sales, because it helped me as I worked on the financial side of WGU while also juggling my day job of being governor.

We had a business plan and some impressive supporters, but no track record to speak of. To make matters worse, economic enhancement was nowhere in sight—the return-on investment would be lives changed, not profits, endowments, or margins. We had to find investors looking to change the world, not just looking to earn more money.

Despite Silicon Valley’s reputation for pure capitalism, Max and I began to encounter a group of young, gifted, and highly successful technology entrepreneurs who wanted to do exactly that—change the world of education. Luckily for us, they saw WGU as exactly the kind of disruptive force that would be change-making. One of those gifted entrepreneurs was Scott McNealy, the CEO and chairman of Sun Microsystems, a large, publicly traded tech company Scott had built from scratch. By 1997, Scott was forty-three years old and very wealthy.

Max Farbman had learned to play the governor card about as skillfully as anybody in human history, and he used it to get an appointment with Scott at his office in Palo Alto. Now, this next story is right out of a start-up fantasy, though when it’s told, it nearly always omits one critical point: at this time, WGU was nearly out of money, and if we didn’t get more funds soon, this project would be over.

We had been promised only thirty minutes. So, after some small talk, I made the elevator pitch—the limitations of the current education model, moving to technology delivery, and measuring student progress by what students learn, not seat time. Scott asked a series of questions and then said, “I totally get this.” He then went on to relate his own experience of when he took a class at Harvard using computer-based learning.

“I started Monday morning and finished by Tuesday evening,” he said. “I didn’t sleep or eat, and I bugged the professor whenever I got stuck. I got an A. If Harvard had been all self-paced, I could have finished my degree in a year. Gates, Ballmer, Ellison, Jobs and other dropouts would not have gotten a head start on me while I was stuck getting my degrees; I was dying to get out and get a job and do something useful.(11)

At the conclusion of our discussion, Scott walked to his desk, opened the drawer, and extracted one of those small checkbooks designed to fit in a breast pocket. He filled in the blanks, signed it with a flourish, and walked back to where we were seated. He handed me the check and said, “I want to help.” The check was for $500,000 from the Scott and Susan McNealy Foundation.

His next gesture was just as important. Taking out his cellphone and turning to the contacts, Scott said, “Write these names and numbers down. You should call them and tell them I asked you to call.”

The names were well-known technology figures: John Chambers at Cisco, Eric Benhamou at 3Com, Jeff Raikes at Microsoft, Lou Gerstner at IBM, Eric Schmidt at Novell, and Mike Armstrong at AT&T.

"It's one small click for mankind, one giant leap for distance learning everywhere."

In one meeting Scott McNealy—single handedly—not only saved us from scraping the bottom of the barrel at WGU but laid a beachhead in Silicon Valley that we were able to build on. One month later, AT&T provided a $250,000 grant. The McNealy’s gift, AT&T’s donation, and the state commitments that trickled in allowed us to continue our work through most of 1997.

Headwinds

Through most of 1997 and the first half of 1998, Jeff Livingston, Bob Albrecht, and their small team of consultants and employees hammered away in their attempt to define WGU. The higher education community had not paid a lot of attention during the first couple of years, but as time went on, Livingston and Albrecht were invited to speak at multiple higher education events. At first, the attention was a mix of curiosity and nervousness, but it was becoming more evident that the idea of technology-delivered, competency-measured education touched a lot of nerves. As an article in USA Today stated, “In just three years WGU’s architects have created a model that challenges just about every convention in higher education”.(12)

By midyear 1998, we felt the need to provide some kind of product. On September 2, 1998, the board of trustees met for a meeting and used the occasion to launch a SmartCatalog, which provided online access and enrollment in any of 194 courses from various universities around the United States. It was akin to Amazon for college courses.

Rather than opening a physical location with a ribbon cutting, six of us—Clara Lovett, Bob Albrecht, Jeff Livingston, Eric Benhamou, Governor Roy Romer, and me—surrounded a table, one person holding a recent invention: a computer mouse. I adapted the words of astronaut Neil Armstrong as he made the first moon landing: “It’s one small click for mankind, one giant leap for distance learning everywhere.” With that, we clicked open the website for Western Governors University.

We had no idea what the response would be. Of course, the internet was new, and a very small portion of the population even had access to the internet. But no matter the number of qualifications one cites, the resulting uptake was disastrous. It was ten days before a single person enrolled. Finally, on September 12, 1998, WGU’s first student, Teresa Holtrop, a forty-two-year-old pediatrician at Detroit’s Children’s Hospital, signed up for an applied statistics course offered by Chadron State College.(13)

From the beginning, when speaking about WGU, I had painted a vision of thousands—someday tens or hundreds of thousands—using WGU to access higher education. But only seventy-five students enrolled in a class during the first two weeks. Realistically, comparing the state of online commerce today (where millions of businesses offer products and services online) to the state of online commerce then, we probably shouldn’t have expected a different result. But we’d had high expectations and were disappointed. The media and critics in higher education jumped on the results in full force. The Salt Lake Tribune was particularly gleeful in calling WGU a virtual flop, pointing to computer glitches and too few students. “WGU has grabbed headlines and imaginations around the globe, but not many students,” the paper chided.

While disappointed by the results of the SmartCatalog, our first-phase implementation, we kept moving. The SmartCatalog was only intended to be a building block on our way to offering competency-based degrees. It was during phase two of our plan that degrees were to be made available.

As I reflect back on this first setback, it is clear there are two important lessons to be drawn from the SmartCatalog. The first is patience. In large measure we built the SmartCatalog because we were feeling a need to produce something, and we knew degrees were at least a year away. However, building it was not a good use of money or energy. The second lesson is managing expectations. The vision wasn’t wrong, but using numbers contemporaneously to express the anticipated enrollment of the future set us up for a letdown. It adds evidence to my rule: in politics, never use a number you are not willing to live with forever.

Building Competency-Based Degrees

In the year that followed the introduction of the SmartCatalog, the process of developing degree programs was shaped. Bob Albrecht and Jeff Livingston made the decision to develop a series of associate level degrees: associate of arts, associate of applied science in electronic manufacturing technology, associate of applied science in network administration, and associate of applied science in software applications analysis and integration, as well as one master’s degree in learning and technology.(14)

While it has been greatly refined and improved since, the basic elements of competency-based degree development were invented during that process of forming the first WGU degrees.

I found the process of degree development fascinating and spent a lot of time with Bob and Jeff as they worked through it. I found the associate degrees particularly interesting, because every associate degree contains what colleges reference as general requirements that ensure a student has basic literacy in areas such as science, math, civics, and language. This was directly related to K-12 education and the way learning is measured there. I was quite confident two important questions were rarely asked. First, what does one need to know in order to be considered educated? The second: What is good enough?

Those questions first became part of my thinking during the Utah Education Strategic Planning Task Force I served on as a member of the Utah Board of Regents. It troubled me that in an academic, credit-based system, the primary measurement was how much time a student spent learning, and the second measurement was how well a student did in relation to other students. So, I worked on changing these markers at WGU. As we developed competency-based degrees, we were deciding what a student needed to know and how good was good enough. Working with a council of industry experts, WGU inventoried the skills and knowledge one would expect from a person at that stage of their schooling, and then a separate group of experts would figure out how to accurately and fairly measure a student’s competency.

Once competencies and measures had been developed, WGU then needed to identify ways that students could learn them. Jeff Livingston, Bob Albrecht, and their team began “mapping courses” that were available on the internet. Even at this early stage, I had begun to envision a day when we could cumulate data that would compare the effectiveness of different courses by matching competency with the means of learning. I am not certain if that has been done yet, but it should be.

We also developed the unique model of learning that WGU would use. Rather than holding synchronous classes where everyone started on the same day and attended the same classes (seat-time), we had defined the things a person needed to know, how well they needed to know them, and a method of measuring for the required competencies.

Our concept was that the faculty would not lecture in a classroom setting but would mentor, teach, and assist students as they chose how to learn from a variety of instructional and experiential learning options. For example, a mentor might make the student aware of an online course at another institution that had been mapped to determine the various required skill areas. Or they could participate in a certification program offered by a technology company that taught parts of the required competencies. Because WGU was focused on what a student had learned more than how they learned it, the mentor played a critical role in charting a student’s learning pathway.

We believed faculty mentors would be critical in a second way as well. Because students would be operating on individual learning journeys, we anticipated mentors would play a critical sociological role in providing encouragement and counseling. Our concept was that a mentor would spend considerable time getting to know the student at the beginning of their program, helping them plot a course and get settled into a rhythm. Then they would communicate by telephone, email, text, or messaging several times a week to encourage, teach, and hold the student accountable for progress. The mentor would also administer the competency measures, which could include testing, projects, and papers. But all of this needed to be proven, and the first cohort of 350 students would provide the laboratory for that to happen.

I think the person who essentially invented how this mentoring role would operate was Vince Shrader, who to my knowledge was the first one appointed. Vince, who holds a PhD in philosophy, is still on the faculty at WGU.

Three Miracles

By the spring of 1998, WGU was living hand to mouth.

The most challenging aspect of any startup venture is financing. We went through several “near-death” experiences, and at various times we didn’t know how we would make payroll. Because WGU was a nonprofit enterprise, every donor had to also be an investor in the WGU mission and vision.

What happened next to keep WGU alive was a series of three miracles. Number one, Max Farbman had been cultivating corporate relationships, and his efforts had finally begun to mature. In April 1998, AT&T Foundation agreed to a two-year grant, with a first-stage grant of $750,000. Tom Pelto was the executive who made it possible. He had become a serious believer in our vision and took career risks, paving the way for me to meet with Mike Armstrong, the CEO in New Jersey. It did not hurt that I was, at the time, chairman of the National Governors Association and leading an initiative to defend the states’ ability to collect sales tax on e-commerce. The second miracle was an arrangement with International Thomson Publishing, which agreed to buy the exclusive rights to sell textbooks and other academic material to WGU students for a short period of time. I have never fully understood what they got for it, but what I know is that we got $1.5 million a year for over two years, and we would have failed without it.


From left: Clara Lovett, Bob Albrecht, Jeff Livingston, Eric Benhamou, Roy Romer, and Mike Leavitt

The third miracle was money from the Colorado state budget that Governor Roy Romer pulled out like a rabbit out of a hat. The funds came from mineral lease funds that states in the West receive from federal land agencies, a payment the federal agencies make to share royalties gathered on federal lands within the states. The funds go to the state and the legislature to be appropriated. The only requirement is that the state must justify that the money benefits the communities where the minerals were extracted. It is a highly competitive part of the budget process, and everybody wants a piece of it. Typically, mineral lease funds are used to build roads or other community building uses.

Roy saw mineral lease funds as a means of directing funding to WGU. He wrote a justification that made a quite tortured connection with local communities by saying the money would be used to develop degree programs that would serve rural parts of Colorado. He allocated, and then defended, $3.3 million (from my memory) to WGU. Without it, WGU would never have survived this period. It was unplanned and came in the late summer of 1998—again at just the moment we needed it.

That year, 1998, was the last year Roy Romer served as governor of Colorado. He may not have spent the time I did in driving WGU, but his ideological contributions, the economic contributions he stimulated, and his great prestige qualify him to be considered a keystone founder of WGU.

“I’ve been told about WGU and we’ll send you some money.”

These three gifts sustained WGU well into 1999; however, in the fall of 1999, WGU once again started to wobble financially. But gratefully, another miracle occurred. We had been actively and aggressively pursuing the support of Microsoft, specifically the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation had made higher education a theme, and we knew that having their support would be meaningful both economically and politically, since their money would stand as an endorsement of our idea.

Max Farbman had been working with the foundation’s representatives, but they wanted to see if we were going to keep going. During the summer of 1997, I spoke at Allen and Company in Sun Valley about competency-based education, and Bill Gates was there. Then, in 1999, at another Western Governors’ Association meeting in Las Vegas, Bill Gates was the main speaker. Max arranged with Gates’s people for the two of us, Bill Gates and me, to have a meeting. But Bill arrived late because his previous meeting went too long, so he had to leave about as soon as he got there. Rather than have a formal meeting, I was invited to walk with him to the car. He was mobbed by a group of people and the whole situation felt uncomfortable. As we walked, I tried to summarize a thirty-minute meeting into thirty seconds. I just said, “Bill, your people will know all about Western Governors University. It will challenge every norm in higher education, and I hope you will get behind it.”

Gates did not engage with me personally, but he said, “I’ve been told about WGU and we’ll send you some money.” It was all I needed to hear. In December 1999, the Gates Foundation donated $1 million to WGU. This money kept us going, and the validation opened more doors.

The Accreditation Marathon

Financing was not the only hurdle. In order to operate successfully, the university needed to gain accreditation by regional accreditors. The difficulty of gaining accreditation was first highlighted at the WGA meeting in December 1995 when the governors came together to discuss whether to undertake the venture. In that discussion the commissioners of higher education from each state had properly pointed out that in order to be considered legitimate—for degrees to have any value and for students to qualify for federal grants and other financial aid—this new institution would need to be accredited by the regional accreditation bodies. The commissioners then described the process of accreditation, the criteria, and dynamics involved. There was no shortage of skepticism expressed about this idea of a bunch of governors reinventing higher education. In pleasant, diplomatic tones, they described the complicated process their institutions had to navigate to remain accredited.

After hearing the description, the governors were taken aback by the power accreditors packed. In a voice of frustration, Governor Ben Cayetano of Hawaii said out loud, “And who are these people, the accreditors?” His commissioner of higher education then said, “Governor, I hate to tell you this, but it’s us.”

“Us,” indeed. Accreditation of schools, colleges, and universities is a peer review system, meaning they evaluate each other. However, as noble and academically ecumenical as that might sound, it presents a serious barrier to innovation—a quite perplexing dilemma for us in creating WGU.

Let me acknowledge that institutions need evaluations against standards of quality and viability, and that making those judgments requires knowledgeable and experienced people. But the accreditors are people who typically work in other institutions of learning, which compete with other colleges and universities for funds, students, and prestige rankings. This gives existing institutions and those supported by them powerful disincentives to cultivate or encourage a competing or disruptive model.

Admittedly, my description sounds impugning of the people involved. Actually, I think most of them have pure(ish) motives, but human nature is human nature, and the fact is, academic accreditation is a club membership. There is value to it, and although it is a necessity, it is a highly imperfect model of quality assurance. I have little doubt WGU would not have survived their tradition-bound, self-perpetuating processes had it not been offset by the collective gravitas of nineteen governors.

To be fair, I also need to admit that to begin with, those of us who led that pressure started out quite naive and with expectations that were unrealistic. In the long run, it was the balance created by the collision of tradition-bound reluctance and impatient skepticism that produced an extraordinary outcome. I use the words “long run” deliberately because the process took five-and-a-half years to complete.

Sandra Elman, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU), one of the seven regional accreditation bodies in the United States, described the first meeting between me, Roy Romer, and three accreditation officials (Elman of NCCU; Patricia Thrash of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; and Ralph Wolff of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) this way:

On September 30, 1996, Governor Michael Leavitt very eloquently told me and my two colleagues that it was his hope, and he anticipated, that Western Governors University would receive regional accreditation by the summer of 1997. Well, I can tell you, I sat there, I swallowed hard, and I said, ‘With all due respect governor, regional accreditation does not quite work that way.’

And he listened. And we, my colleagues and I, explained to Governors Leavitt and Romer what’s involved in becoming a candidate, and then becoming an initially accredited institution. Well, I wouldn’t say their jaws fell open, because they are too distinguished and too savvy for that, but they were surprised.

And the fact is that it was almost two years until the university passed the eligibility requirement stage.”(15)

What soon became evident was that accreditation was, by design, a slow and deliberate process. Accrediting WGU was made substantially more complicated by the fact that no accrediting body had ever been asked to provide accreditation to a university that would advance students based on competency attainment.

To people who had worked decades within the Carnegie-based systems to gain a PhD and perhaps tenure at a university, the competency model challenged the concept of how value and quality were defined and measured.

Likewise, the idea of full degrees being offered online did not align with what they normally dealt with, even though fully online courses were not entirely new. Traditional institutions had dealt with distance-learning platforms before—but those distance-learning classes still fit neatly into their time-oriented Carnegie systems.

The bottom line was the accreditation agency had no established standards to measure against because those standards did not exist. There were no classes developed by WGU, and there were no students yet. Standard measurements, such as the square footage of a building or number of faculty, just didn’t apply. Likewise, the accreditors were quite unsure quality would exist in such an institution, let alone how to measure it.

There was another problem: WGU’s accreditation would potentially fall under the supervision of seven different accreditation boards. The vision of WGU was that it could operate in all fifty states, but accreditation was done by regional authorities, and the western states participating initially fell into four different accreditation geographic regions. Did that mean we had to be accredited under each of them?

It is easy to understand why the accreditors were both uncomfortable with the model and reluctant to even start down this road. I am sure they were asking themselves, “Why should we take all the time required to do this when this university is probably going to fail anyway?”


$500,000 grant from AT&T
From left: Tom Pelto (AT&T), Mike Leavitt, Roy Romer, and Jeff Livingston announce a $500,000 grant from AT&T.

A critical moment in the process came in a subsequent meeting with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. We were sensing reluctance. Roy and I discussed this with the sponsoring governors and decided we had to remind the accreditors that states were their customers and we needed them to respond.

I believe great credit is due Sandra Elman. After Roy and I met with her, she concluded that WGU embodied the future where higher education was headed, and she viewed that as the kind of challenge academia needed to lead, not fight. She developed the idea of forming the InterRegional Accrediting Committee (IRAC), which would be essentially a joint venture of four regional accrediting bodies. Each participating regional commission would contribute members to IRAC. They would work together, and if WGU qualified for accreditation, they would be considered accredited by all of the four. IRAC was formed in 1997.

The first task for IRAC was to invent standards for a competency-based university. They picked though the standards applied to institutions and asked themselves which ones applied. For example, there is a standard on how many volumes a library has, or how many study stations it should have. An internet-based university would eventually have access to most of the books written throughout time, so that standard likely didn’t apply. One of the most controversial standards was whether an institution that did not have technical “teaching faculty” could be considered an institution of higher education— WGU was designed around faculty that taught more as mentors than teachers standing in front of a traditional classroom. Accreditors had to accept a different concept of teaching than they were accustomed to.

Both Bob Albrecht and Jeff Livingston were experienced in working with accreditation, as were several of the trustees. On May 13, 1998, IRAC granted WGU eligibility for candidacy status. It was only a statement that there was reason enough to believe accreditation could happen, but it was an important signal to the students that we hoped to enroll soon. First, however, we needed an offering.

WGU’s Darkest Hours

Despite IRAC granting eligibility status to Western Governors University, the fall of 1998 brought the SmartCatalog flop and intense economic pressures. Employees and contractors needed to be paid, and we had no sources of reliable funding. We were living hand to mouth, grant to grant. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1998, Jeff Livingston, who was president of WGU, announced he was leaving to return to Weber State University. Bob Albrecht made clear he would only stay long enough to finish the launching of the first degrees, then he, too, wished to return to his position at the University of Colorado. Likewise, my partner in the venture, Roy Romer, was scheduled to leave office at the end of 1998.

I began to worry WGU was not going to make it. Though the university had been supported by many governors, most had done so at my urging. They had, in turn, leaned on their legislatures and stared down the objections of their higher education communities. However, the news media was beginning to smell failure, despite our IRAC Eligibility Status, and accreditors were palpably skeptical and could easily walk away if they thought the institution was not financially viable.

In addition, it was not like keeping WGU on track was my only job. My day job, being governor of Utah, had other messy issues. We were preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics, where there was an abundance of problems percolating, breaking into a consuming scandal in November of that year. Also, I had pushed to rebuild Interstate 15 through Salt Lake County all at once under a new and untried design-build construction process, so we were right in the middle of construction with the freeway system torn apart, and people were not happy. Additionally, I was serving as chairman of the National Governors Association, which also consumed a lot of time and mental energy. It felt like my canoe was surrounded by alligators.

Charlie Johnson, who had served as my chief of staff and was a constant, trusted presence, left the Governor’s Office about a year into my second term. This was one of many times I called upon him for help after he had left. In the fall of 1998, I asked Charlie to come see me. Sitting in the small private office at the Capitol, I poured out my worries about WGU’s impending failure. I asked Charlie to dig into the problem and give me an honest assessment and a recommendation.

"I may have found your new leader."

A couple of weeks later, Charlie returned with a clear and concise assessment. We had to solve three problems. First, a new leader. Jeff Livingston had accepted a new opportunity at Weber State and was preparing to leave. Bob Albrecht was heroically pioneering forward but was clear about his departure. Second, having the team divided between Colorado and Utah was increasingly problematic. The final issue, of course, was money.

We agreed the money issue was a chronic problem and that we would need my friend and colleague, Max Farbman—who by this time was spending nearly full-time raising money for WGU—to continue pulling rabbits out of his hat. I asked Charlie if he could begin exploring ideas for new leadership and committed to connect him with others who could serve as resources. However, I knew the issue of where WGU would be headquartered was something only I could bring to a head.

New Home, New Leadership

Designating a permanent location for WGU had simmered under the surface between Roy Romer and me really since the conception. We had managed it by having the contributions he made located in Colorado and those I arranged in Salt Lake City. The respective roles of Jeff and Bob likewise made it natural that the administrative functions of WGU took place in Utah and the university’s academic epicenter was in Colorado. However, with both of them leaving, it would be critical to resolve the question.

I met with Roy at an NGA meeting in Washington, D.C., and expressed to him the three concerns that Charlie raised. We then discussed in a very direct way the sensitive subject of the permanent headquarters. I acknowledged it was natural for both of us to want it in our states. I also acknowledged that WGU would not have been created, nor would it have survived, without him. However, he was leaving office, and while it was critical that he remain involved, the perpetuation of our work would likely fall to me. I told him it was likely I would seek another term in 2000 and that there was no certainty his successor would have the same interest he did. Roy expressed in direct terms some worries he had about his perception of Salt Lake City. However, to his credit, he could see that with him leaving office it would be better to have WGU unified in Utah. We agreed nothing would happen until after he was gone and Albrecht had returned to his permanent role. But in the long run, the headquarters would be in Utah.

Within weeks Charlie returned with good news. “I may have found your new leader.” He had encountered a young executive named Bob Mendenhall. Mendenhall had been the general manager of IBM’s worldwide education unit. He had become part of IBM when IBM bought the computer-based education and training company Wicat Systems, Inc., which Mendenhall had founded. When he left IBM, he had a two year non-compete clause in his contract and had decided to use the time earning a PhD in education at BYU.

I met with Mendenhall at Charlie’s suggestion. Because Wicat Systems was a Utah company, and I had visited them in my capacity as governor, it is quite likely I had met Mendenhall before. However, this meeting was obviously different. I was flying to San Jose, California, in the state plane, and I invited Mendenhall along so we would have plenty of time to talk and discuss WGU.

 

1. From left: Ed Schafer, North Dakota; Tony Knolls, Alaska; Ben Nelson, Nebraska; Roy Romer, Colorado; Mike Leavitt, Utah; Phil Batt, Idaho; Jim Geringer, Wyoming; and Gary Johnson, New Mexico.

2. Web Business magazine praises WGU

3. Journalists show skepticism to WGU in the beginning stages

 

I knew the next leader of WGU needed to have an entrepreneur’s mind and an educator’s heart. WGU was a startup business, and it had to be led by someone with the tenacity to think creatively and push through obstacles. Mendenhall checked the entrepreneur box for me—he had taken an idea and turned into a successful technology business, then took that business public, and then later sold it to IBM. However, what really excited me was how compatible our ideas were about the direction of education. When I asked Mendenhall to describe where he was in his PhD program, he responded that his course work had been completed and he was now working on his dissertation. The topic? Competency-based learning. There was no doubt in my mind—we had found the leader of WGU.

High on the list of many miracles that occurred in the formation of WGU was the appearance of Bob Mendenhall at that moment in time. Bob’s willingness to accept the role, even when there was so much uncertainty, was an enormous blessing. When Mendenhall said yes, the search ended. 

In March 1999, Bob Mendenhall was announced as the new president of Western Governors University. Soon after, the elitist tendency of the traditional higher education establishment was once again made manifest. The Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the higher education industry’s most respected publications—and a frequent early critic of WGU—reported that WGU had hired a graduate student as its new president. But such comments simply supplied emotional fuel for both Mendenhall and me. 

While having a new WGU president meant renewed leadership, it was by no means the end of our most challenging period. Later that year, the first two degrees had been launched: an associate of arts and an associate of applied science in electronic manufacturing technology. The following month the masters of arts in learning and technology was introduced. But the ugly truth is, at first, the offerings were just ignored. Competency-based education was new to people, our marketing budget was next to zero, and WGU was not accredited. When people had so many higher education alternatives, this was a tough sell, so people were not buying. This heightened our failure risk substantially for two obvious reasons: we were not going to be accredited by regional accreditation commissions without any students, and it just made getting funding harder. 

In the fall of 1999, Mendenhall began to focus on how he would replace chief academic officer Bob Albrecht, who had deferred his planned departure by nearly a year. Given the fragile place we were in with accreditation, it was an important strategic hire. Mendenhall landed Dr. Douglas “Chip” Johnstone, who had been provost and academic vice president of Cambridge College in Massachusetts. Chip agreed to take on the same roles at WGU. Chip had been a PhD student under Bob Albrecht and brought deep experience and credentials in establishing faculty standards, developing new majors, steering reaccreditation reviews, and chairing the college senate.(16) 

Bob Mendenhall and Chip Johnstone were a good team. As president, Bob thought like an entrepreneur; as academic vice president, Chip was accepted as a true academic who understood the process. Chip focused on accreditation and Bob drilled into strategy. 

Students and Scholarships 

With Bob Mendenhall and Chip Johnstone working as a team, we now could focus on the next issue: how to get more students attending Western Governors University. A key requirement of accreditation was having at least 350 legitimate, degree-seeking students, and we were not there yet. We needed to find a niche and concentrate on it.

To solve this problem, we had to focus on a bigger strategic issue—who our target market was. Up to this point, we had been developing the competency-based equivalent of a general university. We were trying to serve everybody, and it was not working. As we looked at our options, and the three programs we had launched, only the master’s degree in learning and technology had the potential to be differentiated. We decided to focus on marketing one degree to a very narrow group of prospects—teachers who wanted to get a master’s degree and who believed the future of education was in technology. 

Today, online education is extremely common. In fact, at the time this chapter was written, the United States was suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, and entire universities had moved to online teaching models. In 1999, online teaching hardly existed, and competency-based education certainly did not exist. So, we were pioneering and asking teachers to pioneer with us. 

Focusing on marketing to teachers was a brilliant idea because WGU, or competency-based learning, really fit the needs and challenges that teachers had. Teachers generally have busy lives, so finding time to go back to school is often impossible. By taking the education to them, rather than having them drive to campus, teachers would be more able and willing to take classes and further their education. 

A secondary reason we focused on teachers and this particular degree is that during this time, a lot of governors, me included, were pushing our education systems to adopt the use of new technologies in education. This strategy aligned with the interest of our sponsor governors. 

However, all those things had to offset two serious barriers—convincing teachers to sign up for a degree that was not accredited, and, of course, cost. The non-accreditation issue also complicated the cost. Most scholarships, student loans, or assistance grants, as well as additional compensation for teachers, require students to be in accredited programs. 

To overcome this hurdle, I proposed a plan to Bob, Chip, and the board of trustees. We would provide four hundred full-tuition scholarships to teachers, known as Governor’s Scholarships. We would allocate the scholarships among the governors and ask that each one use the power of their office, thereby lending the prestige of their office, to each scholarship. We also asked each governor to assist in raising money for the scholarships. We placed a value of five-thousand dollars on the scholarship, which would bring desperately needed revenue to WGU. Even if a governor failed to raise the five thousand dollars per scholarship, we committed that we would still stand behind it. The rationale was that we needed students for accreditation and all our costs were fixed. Any income we got was just a bonus. 

With approval of my plan from the trustees at our meeting in December 1999, I met with the western governors and asked them to participate, and then I committed them to the goal after flying to their states and pitching WGU to their business communities. Most everyone agreed to it, but as is always the case, not all followed through. However, we had a plan and set out to break down another barrier. 

One of the ways a governor can use the power of the office for good is to give something of importance that lifts people at the same time. Giving away these scholarships did just that. I knew, however, that I would need to do much of the heavy lifting on this plan. I started giving scholarships in every possible way I could. When I visited schools—which I did regularly as governor anyway—I would ask the principal to identify a good candidate. Then, in front of the school community I would present the teacher with a full-tuition scholarship. I enlisted the school districts to identify candidates and then match them with donors. I invited legislators to nominate scholarship recipients and let them present the scholarships at schools in their districts. It was not just handing the recipients the equivalent of a five-thousand-dollar check; it was the promise of increased pay and professional opportunities. The brand of getting a governor’s scholarship made the opportunities unique and well received. One night on my “Let Me Speak to the Governor” radio show, a woman called in to talk about a related subject. I asked her if she would like to get a master’s degree. She replied she would, and I awarded her a scholarship on the spot. That part was often heartwarming and fun. 

We resolved to raise as much money as possible to ensure we covered the incremental expense. My oldest son, Michael S. Leavitt, had just graduated from the University of Utah and expected to work for a year before applying for law school. He agreed to spend the year working with Max Farbman to raise money for scholarships. 

We developed a regular process where multiple times a month we would hold small breakfast meetings at the Governor’s Mansion. We would fill the seats with business leaders. After breakfast, I would tell the WGU story and the need for teachers to become proficient with technology. Again, it’s important to put this into the context of the times: People were just learning to operate a computer, so this was a deeply resonant message. I would ask them to consider giving a Utah teacher a scholarship to get a master’s degree and expressed all the good it would do for the teacher and his or her students. After the meeting, Mike would follow up and finalize the arrangements. The business community was incredibly generous. In addition, we began asking foundations for grants. Rather than asking for general support of WGU, this allowed these organizations to give to a tangible purpose with a face and gratitude attached. 

I do not know the actual amount of money we raised this way, but I feel confident in saying Mike S. and I raised money for at least half the scholarships when the foundation grants were factored in. 

Similar things were going on in a handful of other western states. By September 1999, we had awarded fifty scholarships in Utah; we received a grant from Microsoft and assigned sixty of the scholarships to Washington state; twenty-six were awarded in Wyoming; and a similar number were awarded in Nevada. 

The process of developing the Governor’s Scholarships was a turning point for WGU. It took the enterprise from an academic concept to a business, with a product people valued. It was the impetus behind identifying teachers as the market segment we would seek, and it produced the equivalent of actual tuition revenue. It also solved the accreditation problem we faced in needing a minimum of 350 students to become eligible. 

More Accreditation Struggles 

Sandra Elman’s idea of forming the InterRegional Accrediting Committee (IRAC) was brilliant. She managed the intramural politics among the regional commissions extraordinarily well. Her contribution to the success of Western Governors University should never be understated. However, the timetable issues were still present, and everything did not go smoothly. 

In February 2000, IRAC made its first visit to WGU. This would be a unique accreditation visit, one that had never been done before. The team would not be able to walk through a library or classroom building, as would normally be the protocol. 

I remember the anticipation I felt; this visit was an important step towards the realization of the dream I had of WGU. In order to prepare I had studied a profile provided to me on each one of the visiting accreditors. On the first evening of the team’s arrival, we had a reception. I remember the anxiety and preparation, as we all knew showing well was important. 

I tried to read each IRAC member’s personality for hints as we talked and grazed on hors d’oeuvres at the reception and after a recap presentation at the end. By all indications, their visit had gone well, and it had helped them understand our vision and the progress we had made. We now had our 350 students who were working toward graduation, and the pressure was mounting.

However, once the accreditors were gone, it became a waiting game. WGU had been deemed “Eligible for Accreditation” in 1998. We were not seeking to be approved as a “Candidate for Accreditation,” which was the next meaningful step in their process; we wanted to gain full accreditation, to skip candidacy. Even just to be a candidate, though, would give us the ability to grant diplomas, even on a conditional basis. It would also signal that we were on track for success. 

On June 12, 2000, we got a disappointing response. IRAC postponed their decision. No dates or deadlines were mentioned, just a postponement. This inflamed tensions considerably between governors and higher education accreditors. At a Western Governors’ Association meeting held a few days later, a lively conversation occurred over how to respond. Were there legitimate deficiencies to WGU application? If so, why had they not provided insight? Was this a tactic the higher education community was using to kill WGU, by just being unwilling to act? To me, it felt like the higher education community was reminding governors that they, the accreditors, controlled the time and definition of quality. 

I attended the WGU/IRAC meeting, though I do not have memory of what was said. What I do know is that on November 21, 2000, WGU was notified that they had been approved as a Candidate for Accreditation at both the associate and master’s degree levels. It was the first time candidacy status had ever been awarded to a competency-based university. This was a big breakthrough, and a critically important assurance that WGU was providing high quality.


The First Graduate

Candidacy status came none too soon. A major benefit of disrupting the seat-time higher education orthodoxy was allowing students to move as quickly as they wanted to, or as slowly as they needed to. Consequently, we should not have been surprised to see some of our earliest students accelerate through the master’s in learning and technology program.

First graduation ceremony with the first graduate, Gennie Kirch on December 1, 2000
WGU first graduate, Gennie Kirch

Among the group of 350 students who were given Governor’s Scholarships to WGU was Gennie Kirch, a teacher in Roy, Utah. Gennie had aspired to get a master’s degree and had even been accepted at a traditional university. However, time, money, and family circumstances prevented her from following through.

Like so many who would follow her, Gennie blended her studies with teaching full time and fulfilling family responsibilities. After starting the program in the fall of 1999, she finished her program in about fifteen months. On December 1, 2000, we held WGU’s first commencement ceremony for its first graduate, Gennie Kirch. I’m sure it was a notable day for Gennie, but it also felt like a milestone day for those of us who had persevered the five years since the idea of WGU was hatched at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Park City, Utah.

We were resolved to make the day feel like the monumental accomplishment it was for all of us. Though the group who came for the ceremony was small, we all donned full academic caps and gowns for the occasion. All of us knew the historic significance of the moment. “Today we not only recognize Gennie’s outstanding achievement,” I said, “but we have the first example that WGU is helping create the kind of higher education system that is required in the demanding society and economy we live in.”

Gennie, as I recall, publicly thanked her mentor, Vince Shrader, who had guided her from the first day. He had helped her identify the skills she already had and guided her in acquiring the competencies she needed to earn her degree.

Gennie’s remarks provided significant insight for me about the power of the relationship between mentor and student—how they can become partners on the difficult journey of education.

Over the ensuing years, I have attended many WGU commencements, and the depth of appreciation students feel for their mentors has been confirmed numerous times. Because nearly all the interactions between students and their mentors take place through technology, it is common that they never meet in person until the graduation ceremony. Universally, there are sincere, heartfelt expressions of gratitude, and often tears. This relationship may be conducted through technology, but the impact is real and the gratitude palpable.

"We have the first example that WGU is helping create the kind of higher education system that is required in the demanding society and economy we live in."

After Gennie’s graduation, we sat for a while and visited. I asked her how she had managed all the demands in her life while getting a master’s degree. She told me much of her work had been done late at night when the house was quiet. I then asked about the rigor of the experience. Gennie said she found the work every bit as demanding as her experiences in traditional universities. She later told Heidi King, author of WGU’s history, the same thing she told me:

Sometimes I wasn’t sure I could keep going. I didn’t just have to ‘pay attention’ in class—I had to know the material. I was a stakeholder in what I was learning. It was definitely as difficult as a traditional classroom education, maybe harder.

The degree changed my life in three ways. I became better at what I did and was able to apply the best practices I researched and learned immediately in a plan that our school used for several years.

Second: I learned to mentor and deal with students in my classroom the same way Vince had worked with me.

And last, I did earn more money because of getting my master’s and that has been a blessing.(17)

In my professional lifetime I have attended thousands of events, many far more grandiose than WGU’s first commencement, yet few were more meaningful to me. We had a long way to go before WGU’s future would be certain, but it felt evident that Gennie was the first of many such moments. In fact, just six months later, a second commencement program was held in Alaska’s governor’s office where Terry Hamm received WGU’s first associate degree. The number increased to four in September 2001, when Shauna Bagley and Kristy Yeschick received their diplomas in a ceremony in the Gold Room at the Utah State Capitol. A year later, by December 2002, thirty-three graduates had earned their degrees.(18)

On the twentieth anniversary of WGU in 2017, graduation ceremonies filled the arena at the Salt Palace Convention Center. There were more than ten thousand people in attendance as graduates and their families celebrated. Sitting on the stage and remembering the early graduation ceremonies I felt overwhelmed by the thought of all the ongoing good that has come from our efforts.

Accreditation, Finally

The fact that WGU was now issuing degrees made the stakes on gaining regional accreditation even higher. Only nine days before Gennie Kirch had been granted her degree, IRAC approved WGU as a Candidate for Accreditation at both the associate degree and master’s degree level. This meant degrees could be issued, but if the university wasn’t ultimately successful in gaining accreditation, the value of those hard-earned accomplishments by our students would be diminished. In taking the action, the accrediting committee noted WGU’s intent to initiate a baccalaureate degree program. WGU had rolled out its first bachelor’s degree one month earlier—a bachelor of science in business, IT management. 

It took two more years, but WGU made history when, in a formal letter on February 24, 2003, IRAC granted accreditation at the associate, baccalaureate, and master’s degree levels. On February 3, 2003, notification was given that IRAC had been granted initial accreditation at the associate, baccalaureate, and master’s degree levels—a historic milestone for higher education in the new tech era.  

“WGU is the first online, competency-based institution to receive accreditation and the first time that four IRAC members have collaborated to oversee the evaluation process,” Dr. Elman said.(19) In other words, WGU was essentially accredited by four regional commissions.  

Sandra Elman, who had served both as president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and as executive director of the four-agency IRAC, said evaluating WGU had proved challenging because of its lack of traditional infrastructure. But it had also proved its worth. “Assessing students’ knowledge and approaching it from a competency-based perspective can be very effective,” she said.(20)

Accreditation for WGU took five years—a shorter time frame than typical, I’m told. Looking back, I have to say that while the system needed to be pushed, they responded positively to the innovation WGU represented, with much appreciation due to Sandra Elman. I learned a lot about accreditation during the five years we worked to achieve it; in the beginning, I was naive and perhaps impatient. However, everyone learned from the experience.  

I wish I could say it was the last frustration generated by accreditation bodies in the building of WGU, but it was not, and the problem always seems to be generated by the same issue: certification bodies are nearly always made up of people who have an interest in protecting the status quo. It takes great courage and uncommon integrity to support entry of a disruptive force into one’s industry segment.  

While WGU was always committed to gaining regional accreditation, there are other routes to gaining credentialed success. The accrediting commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) was formed as an alternative for certain types of higher education organizations. As a backup, WGU decided to seek additional accreditation through DETC. The process was completed in one year, rather than the nearly six-year process it ultimately took for regional accreditation.  

WGU’s Big Break

The success we had in recruiting teachers for the master’s degree in learning technology was important to accreditation, but it also revealed a market need. Teachers were hungry to learn and progress, especially in the field of technology, because tech skills were becoming key to advancement in the profession. Bob Mendenhall made the decision to make teachers our first focused market and then proposed the creation of a teacher’s college.

The inception of a new teacher’s college was a good fit for WGU and an answer to rigorous education guidelines issued by the new administration of President George W. Bush. Bush, the governor of Texas and a good friend of mine, was elected president in November 2000. In his inaugural speech, the president committed that “no child would be left behind,” and launched an overhaul of America’s education system. His program required all teachers of core academic subjects to be “highly qualified,” meaning teachers needed a bachelor’s degree, full state certification, and proficiency in required competencies by the end of the 2005–2006 school year. New criteria also applied to teacher’s aides, who now needed a two-year degree or two years of postsecondary study and competencies in core subjects.(21)

With the help of WGU’s lobbyist, Bill Simmons, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Bill Hansen, Bob Mendenhall, and I arranged to see Rod Paige, the United States Secretary of Education. Secretary Paige was a former school superintendent in Houston, Texas, who had been frustrated by his inability to get teachers trained and certified. He had gone so far as to form a teacher’s college inside the Houston School District where he lived.

As Bob Mendenhall and I began to unfold the vision of WGU and describe the concerns of the governors I was there representing, Paige listened quietly. There was little to no expression on his face throughout the duration of our meeting. Finally, I said, “Any thoughts you would share with us, Mr. Secretary?”

"This is the best idea I've heard since I've been in Washington."

Rod Paige, whom I would later serve with in the Bush cabinet, replied: “This is the best idea I’ve heard since I’ve been in Washington.” He loved the fact that the entire institution was about competency measurement.

Within weeks, the Department of Education had committed ten million dollars over three years to WGU to build a teacher’s college. It was a huge break. It was the kind of sustained funding needed to develop our plan with a degree of predictability. Plus, it was a huge validation to have the U.S. Education Department providing the funds.

In 2002, we got an additional boost when the Department of Education provided a $3.7 million grant to help experienced teacher’s aides earn a degree and receive teaching certification. I could see Rod Paige’s fingerprints all over this one because of his experience in Texas trying to find qualified teachers. The grant went to school districts in Nevada and Texas. Nevada’s governor, Kenny Guinn, a former school district superintendent and strong advocate of WGU, noted that school aides who wanted to become teachers “can access WGU’s online programs wherever they live and earn a degree.”

By 2003, the WGU Teachers College was accepting enrollment in a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies (elementary education), and master’s degrees in teaching education or mathematics education. But once again, the subject of accreditation became a sticking point—this time over reciprocity agreements in various states over teaching school requirements and certifications.

Working Through Teacher Certification

Ensuring high standards in the selection and employment of those that teach is a worthy and noble objective. Notionally, this is the principle that has driven the creation of accreditation schemes, and accreditation groups try to accomplish this by having well-educated, experienced, clear-thinking, and independent people decide which institutions should be among those considered worthy. One would assume having regional academic accreditation for a university would be sufficient, but it turns out that nearly every discipline within a university also has programmatic accreditation schemes, and those specialized accreditations have been used to filter for quality. Teachers are a good example.

State legislatures across the country understandably have made teacher certification a prerequisite for a licensed person to teach in a public school. States generally form a teacher certification/licensing board, made up of leaders of the colleges and universities that have teacher education programs.

When WGU began to approach these boards, we found them very reluctant to accept WGU graduates as qualified, even though WGU was accredited by the same regional commissions as the colleges and universities the licensing board members worked at. There was, simply stated, a self-interested bias. This new and innovative university was a threat to the monopoly the incumbent suppliers—colleges and universities—had enjoyed for a long time. I suppose another explanation might be elitism.

Perhaps the most blatant example was in Utah, where the resistance and recalcitrant attitude was so immovable among the deans of public universities who had been appointed to the board that the state legislature finally had to do the equivalent of mandating the state’s acceptance of WGU degrees in certifying teachers.

After fighting through several states’ processes, the leadership of the WGU Teachers College concluded their only real chance of gaining nationwide acceptance was to get accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Like the regional accreditation process, NCATE had its own brand of skepticism and traditionalist response to WGU. However, by this time the WGU team had developed a well-refined sense of confidence and they decided to take on the challenge. It was an objective many would have thought was outside the university’s reach—including some NCATE officials. However, in October 2006, NCATE granted full accreditation to WGU—the first exclusively online university to receive it. This ensured WGU graduates qualified for a teaching certificate nationwide.

WGU’s Teachers College, as of this writing, is still the nation’s only competency-based program with NCATE accreditation. And in a startling counter to the early skepticism, the WGU model was validated in a resounding way just eight years after the opening of the Teachers College. In 2014, the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked more than 1,600 schools of education across the United States—every major university, including WGU. The WGU secondary education program came in first in the nation, and the WGU elementary education program was ranked sixteenth nationally. WGU was one of only ten institutions among the total 1,600 to make the top lists for both elementary and secondary education.(22) Truthfully, it has achieved more success than I ever dreamed.

A Change in My Role

In the fall of 2003, I resigned as governor of Utah to join the Cabinet of President George W. Bush, initially as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. As governor, I had been able to make the advancement of WGU a primary function of my public service role. Moving to the federal level, I knew that would change. WGU was solidly grounded, however, making a mark and winning accolades.

In the eight years since that initial Park City meeting of the Western Governors’ Association, where the idea was conceived in 1995, WGU had become an accredited university, widely known as the innovator in competency-measured education and technology delivery. It was positioned to succeed. WGU had a dynamic leader in Bob Mendenhall, who had assembled an extraordinary team. More than one thousand degree-seeking students had enrolled. A sustainable revenue model was operating and WGU had an established corporate home in Salt Lake City. The future for the university was bigger than any of us could have ever imagined, and I could comfortably change focus to other tasks without worrying about the fate of WGU.

Once I had finished my service as governor, I continued to have regular contact with Bob Mendenhall, his team, and the governors who continued to nurture WGU, but the need for me to provide day-to-day guidance and assistance changed. I served as administrator of the EPA until President Bush was reelected in November 2004. After the election, President Bush asked that I serve in a different role, and I became secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. This change opened new opportunities to learn and serve, and it also provided a new opportunity to help WGU.

As I immersed myself in health care, I quickly began to recognize that the health care system in the United States had very similar characteristics to higher education. In health care, just like higher education, there was no system of determining quality, and they both measure the wrong output. The system of higher education measures the amount of time a student spends in class (a volume measure), not the amount a student learns. Likewise, the health care system uses a system of payments that rewards the number of procedures a system performs rather than the improvement in health outcomes.

Also, both higher education and health care are, for the most part, paid for by third parties. In health care, it is insurance provided either by an employer or the government. In higher education, students attend institutions that are highly subsidized by taxpayers, and students often pay tuition by taking out student loans, grants from the government, or scholarships. As a result, consumers have only one incentive to consume volume, not value.

Both health care systems and higher education institutions provide very little information upon which consumers can base comparisons of the quality of their offerings. In higher education, quality in large measure is measured by reputation, size of the endowment, and unrelated measures like the success of their football program.

The cost of both health care and higher education was outstripping inflation every year and escalating toward unaffordability—a trend that has continued through the present day. Both higher education and health care also have been bound by a complicated combination of regulations and traditions.

In my role as secretary of health and human services, I began to advocate for changing the measurement system from volume-based to value-based. It is a pursuit I would continue to advocate, research, and promote for the next two decades and beyond. In a future part of my history, those efforts will be detailed, but the point of writing about it here is the startling parallels I began to recognize between the two industry segments. I believed WGU could help.

Launching the College of Health Professions

Higher education and health care were especially aligned in one chronic need—the education of medical professionals and workers. Hospitals in the U.S. faced daunting shortages of nurses and other critical roles. I immediately knew that applying the competency model could make a dramatic impact. This became an ongoing discussion between Bob Mendenhall and me.

In 2006, WGU agreed to form the College of Health Professions. It initially offered only two degrees, an MBA in health care management and a master’s in health management. However, our real goal was to take on nursing pre-licensure and to revolutionize the training of nurses in the same way WGU was changing the way teachers were trained.

A consortium of major hospital systems agreed to work with WGU in creating a nursing school. The group included HCA Healthcare, CedarsSinai, Kaiser Permanente, and Tenet Healthcare. The pattern of development was basically the same as the teachers college. WGU was able to combine the support of these private organizations with some government funding in order to develop the competencies and assessments. Then, just as it did with the teachers college, WGU had to take on the complicated challenge of winning over, state by state, accreditors and certifiers. Once again, the state accreditors and certifiers were guardians of the status quo—existing nursing programs and schools—and skeptical of changing from a seat-time model to WGU’s technology-based competency model. And they were even more wary of an innovative competitor.

Over the decade following my departure from federal service, I continued to do everything I could to promote WGU’s success. Shortly after leaving Washington in 2009, I had a discussion with Bob Mendenhall about an idea of using the WGU technology platform and programs to create individual state-identified colleges. It was our hypothesis that if WGU could be more closely identified and name-associated with a state, it would be attractive to more states and might also maintain the connection with governors. It was consistent with our original vision of developing one institution as a proof-of-concept with the hope that it could be incorporated into more states’ higher education systems.

The logical place to try the concept was Indiana, where Mitch Daniels was governor. Mitch had become a good friend to me as we served in the Bush administration together. He had then left Washington to run for governor. I called Governor Daniels to ask if he would consider serving on the board of trustees of WGU. He accepted, and through his service became both acquainted with the competency-based, technology-delivered characteristics of WGU and highly supportive of them.

Daniels had launched a college completion campaign to help former students who attended colleges but never got a degree. WGU immediately appealed to him as a means of reaching this population.

Truthfully, Bob Mendenhall and his team did the work. My main contribution to WGU Indiana was helping with the conceptualization of the idea and building a relationship with the governor. On June 10, 2010, with money provided by the Lilly Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, WGU Indiana was born.

WGU Indiana used the same programs and technology platform of WGU, but it was the association with the state of Indiana that truly made a difference. Allison Barber, who became the chancellor of WGU Indiana, led the charge, and within two years students were enrolled from all ninety-two Indiana counties, and enrollment just kept growing.

Over the next few years this model was used to develop WGU Washington, WGU Texas, WGU Missouri, WGU Tennessee, and WGU Nevada. My role in each of those was about the same as WGU Indiana. More recently, five additional state affiliates have been established—WGU North Carolina, WGU Ohio, WGU Utah, WGU Idaho, and WGU Montana.

Throughout the time period that followed my public service years, I declined an offer to become a formal part of the governance at WGU, choosing instead to concentrate my efforts on building the WGU College of Health Professions. I believe the foundational principles of WGU—competency measurement and technology delivery—are also the formula to transform health care. When some of my business obligations wind down, I hope WGU can once again be the focus of my energies because the opportunities for good are endless, the purpose is noble, and I would find the work satisfying.

Western Governors University Today

More than 1,900 WGU graduates from across the country gathered for commencement weekend ceremonies at The Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington, on July 15, 2023.
More than 1,900 WGU graduates from across the country gathered for commencement weekend ceremonies at The Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington, on July 15, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Western Governors University).

My pleasure in Western Governors University is undeniable and easily justified. The role I played in its founding has been chronicled in this history and in others. My efforts stand alongside many others who have built something of profound importance—and in this case, something that is continually evolving or expanding. To know what WGU has become, future readers of this document will need to assess its place in a world that also changes and evolves. In the world we now live in, WGU makes a difference.  

WGU celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2022, a milestone coinciding with a student body totaling 131,490 students throughout the United States and on U.S. military bases around the world. A total of 288,045 have graduated with a degree, many of whom would never have attended or afforded to go to college otherwise.(23)

The WGU Teachers College and the College of Health Professions are the largest single providers of teachers and nurses in the nation. The teaching college, as of 2021, had more than 67,000 alumni and 33,000 students.(24)

WGU nursing graduates made up two percent of all the registered nurses with an active license in the nation. Moreover, in 2021, WGU produced 17 percent of the nation’s registered nurses earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Data on the nursing program was compiled by the Utah Foundation in a report commissioned by WGU. Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard described WGU’s impact as “eye-popping.” “Our nation is facing critical challenges in staffing hospitals. Western Governors is deploying an innovative approach to open opportunities and lead the way forward.”(25)

Over at the College of Business, WGU’s bachelor of science business administration–accounting degree was ranked first nationally in bachelor’s degree conferrals in 2021, while the bachelor of science business administration–human resources management program enrolled more students than any other undergraduate HR program in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). (26)

“Our nation is facing critical challenges in staffing hospitals. Western Governors is deploying an innovative approach to open opportunities and lead the way forward.”

When I hear statistics like those coming from the teaching, health, and business colleges, the reaction is one of wonderment, gratitude, and immense satisfaction—and thoughts that inevitably return to the year 2000 and Gennie Kirch. I will always remember WGU’s first commencement, and its solo, trailblazing graduate.

I think, too, of that day long ago in 1995 when the descriptor “virtual university” was banished and a spur-of-the-moment decision in the incorporation process required an official and lasting name—Western Governors University.

In the summer of 2022, WGU returned the naming favor, officially designating the College of Health Professions as the Michael O. Leavitt School of Health. The renaming was formally announced at a dinner and celebration attended by family, former staffers, and a host of people who played a role in WGU’s success from the outset, on through two decades. It was an unforgettable, generous honor that underscores the bond I feel with WGU as well as my happiness over its success and the value it brings to the world.

I often express my view that leadership in any institution is a generational relay. And in 2016, that baton was passed at WGU when Scott Pulsipher succeeded Bob Mendenhall and became the university’s second president. Carrying forward from Bob’s exemplary leadership, Scott has accelerated the pace and expanded the horizon for WGU.


From left : Deputy Secretary Bill Hansen, WGU President Bob Mendenhall, U. S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.
Press conference to announce the launch of the Teachers College, March 10, 2003.

The university no longer must fight for legitimacy like we did in the early days, and it is viewed as a leader and beacon of innovation. Its leaders sit in council at the White House and hold a place at the higher education table, alongside elite institutions that have existed much longer than WGU. I see a day when WGU will serve a million students, with its methods copied by others as they attempt to follow its foundational principles of measuring competency and using technology to become student centered.

I would encourage the reader of this history to visit www.wgu.edu to follow WGU’s path.

True to nature, I also see several important lessons emerging from the WGU experience, which I would like to impart.

Lessons I Learned in the Process

The most important lesson I learned from my role in the formation of WGU is simple gratitude for the privilege of witnessing, up close, the multiple miracles that were required and which provided the ballast to bring WGU forward. There were many other lessons, but I want to particularly highlight just three.

Simple Ideas Have Great Power

Yes, the creators of WGU saw the potential of the internet to change the basic, campus-based operating paradigm of higher education.

But the delivery of knowledge over the internet was not, is not, and will never be, the idea that gave WGU the power to improve higher education. The simple and powerful principle that set WGU apart has and always will be its bedrock commitment to measure and reward competency. It was that principle, combined with technology, that has given WGU the potential to deliver affordable, quality, higher education to millions.

The Power of Disruptive Ideas

Today, the words competency-based education tumble far more easily off the lips of thought leaders throughout higher education than they did twenty-five years ago. WGU has more than a quarter-million graduates, thousands of employees, respectful acceptance, and even admiration from accreditors and certification bodies.

It would be easy to forget the skepticism WGU faced, the economic uncertainty, and the structural barriers we had to scale to get here. The governors who created WGU aspired to do more than create a successful university; they wanted to create a disruptive institution whose success would nudge the entire higher education sector toward a new and more sustainable orbit. Each of the governors shared the concern that the present model of higher education was economically unsustainable for families and states. They believed that on the current path, higher education, at some point, would price itself out of reach for millions of Americans—a conclusion that has proven to be true.

No political force will change the current models, only economic hardship and the availability of a new, better model that provides high quality at an affordable price. The founders of WGU knew such a model could not be part of an existing university. It had to emerge separately and become strong enough to demonstrate the power of the new model. We believed that once WGU gained momentum and strength, when that moment came, it could provide an answer.

When WGU began to develop state affiliates in various states, there was resistance from existing institutions, even though WGU never asked for any ongoing state appropriations and served an underserved segment of the population. However, insistent governors and impatient state legislators who believe that millions of their citizens are being priced out of an opportunity to gain a higher education have paved the way.

When a WGU state affiliate enters a state, two things routinely happen. Thousands of state citizens gain access to higher education—and options they didn’t have before. Second, the other universities and colleges in that state begin to work on competency-based programs. WGU was built to drive innovation in a centuries-old institution badly in need of innovation.

A Sound Idea Is Not Enough; Leadership Is Required

There are hundreds of people who have contributed leadership. Much has been said, and rightly so, about the leadership of Bob Mendenhall. Roy Romer should be recognized as the father of WGU’s competency ethic. Jim Geringer has been unrelenting in building WGU.

I want to personally acknowledge Sam Smith and Clara Lovett, who were WGU’s ambassadors to the traditional higher education world; the Western Governors’ Association and Jim Souby, who was executive director of Western Governors’ Association at the time that Western Governors University was formed; Jeff Livingston and Bob Albrecht, for their early efforts to turn the vision into a plan; donors, fundraisers, and members of Congress, especially the late senator Bob Bennett; staff members, consultants, and especially the first students who trusted the WGU.

President Scott Pulsipher leads this institution into its third decade. To him and to all those who will assist him, I will close with this admonition: Despite WGU’s success, its mission has not yet been fully accomplished. Decades from now it is my hope that WGU still focuses on the powerful, simple idea of measuring and rewarding competency.

Granddaughters Ava and Ivy Leavitt hugging Mike Leavitt at the 25 Year WGU Anniversary celebration.
Mike hugging his granddaughters at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of WGU
 

Footnotes:

1. Mike Leavitt, “Gearing Up with Technology: A Centennial Challenge to Educators,” July 14, 1993, published.

2. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, Changing Lives: The Story of Western Governors University, Western Governors University, 2017, p. 1

3. Associated Press, “‘Virtual University’ is goal of governors,” Denver Post, December 2, 1995. https://archive.wgu.edu/sites/default/public/flipbook/5177/index.html

4. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 3

5. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 11

6. Western Governors’ Association, “Western Governors University Memorandum of Understanding,” WGU Digital Archive, 1996. https://archive.wgu.edu/artifact/western-governors-university-memorandum-understanding

7. John H. Cusman Jr., “Virtual University Will Offer Authentic Degrees by E-Mail,” The New York Times, June 25, 1996. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/25/us/virtual-university-will-offer-authentic-degrees-by-e-mail.html

8. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 10

9. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 9

10. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p.15

11. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p.15-16

12. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p.13 

13. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 20-21

14. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 22

15. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 37

16. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 31 

17. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 45 

18. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 45-48 

19. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 43

20. Dan Carnevale, “Western Governors U. Finally Wins Regional Accreditation,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26, 2003. https://www1.udel.edu/educ/whitson/897s05/files/western_governors_u.htm 

21. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p.51

22. Heidi King, Reinventing Higher Education, p. 55

23. WGU, “Our Story: Measuring Impact,” wgu.edu, https://www.wgu.edu/about/annual-report.html

24. WGU, “University Governance: Teachers College,” wgu.edu, https://www.wgu.edu/about/governance/teachers-college.html

25. “WGU leads nation in nursing graduates.” Utah Policy, August 5, 2022. https://utahpolicy.com/news-release/64613-wgu-leads-nation-in-nursing-graduates


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