Utah – Last July, while university administrators wrung their hands at the approaching COVID-19-impaired fall semester, I attempted to forecast the future of American universities post-pandemic.
My thesis, aided by an extensive interview with the U.S.’s longest-tenured university president, was that reinvention was imminent, and technology would be its primary vehicle. Little did I know that revolution would be headquartered in Orem, Utah.
While Utah Valley University’s model is not transferable everywhere, the university’s ability to harness the digital wave has been impressive. Many universities cut back or closed permanently during the pandemic. UVU, instead, graduated its largest class in its history — 6,410 students — last fall.
Much of the credit goes to Dr. Astrid Tuminez, who now enters her third year as the university’s president. She’s the perfect person for the job — a veteran in the tech sector. Before her appointment in 2018, she was an executive at Microsoft, where she oversaw much of the company’s affairs in southeast Asia. “One of my observations working with very wealthy countries, like Singapore, and very poor countries, like Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, was the big difference that technology could play as a tool, if people knew how to use it,” President Tuminez told the Deseret News editorial board last week.
Even before the pandemic disrupted in-person learning, she made sure UVU was prepared. Last February, the school announced that Dr. Kelly Flanagan, the former vice president of information technology at BYU, would join UVU as vice president of digital transformation — a new role President Tuminez created to spearhead a digital shift.
The school’s IT department merged into the umbrella of digital transformation, and Dr. Flanagan took office on March 16. A week later, on March 23, the pandemic forced UVU’s classes online.
The subsequent 10 months have been full of experimentation and innovation. Classrooms were updated to facilitate livestreamed or automated teaching. Forty percent of faculty received training and are now certified to teach fully online.
That degree of change is not easy. Dr. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and the 40-year higher education veteran I interviewed last summer, quipped that universities have an obsession with looking in the rearview mirror. “People talk about universities being very liberal places,” he told me. “They may be liberal sometimes, politically, but in terms of change, they haven’t changed since the year 1200.”
UVU might be an exception. Not only has it adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic, it plans to continue its digital expansion well after the pandemic ends. Dr. Flanagan’s department — digital transformation — is not a temporary one, nor is its goal to react to the pandemic alone. Instead, UVU wants technology to drive and enhance every aspect of the student experience, from recruitment to graduation. “I believe the future of UVU rests on a successful foundation of digitization,” President Tuminez said.
Others are taking notice. In August 2020, Business Insider’s national rankings of universities with the best return on investment placed UVU at No. 3, just behind BYU-Idaho and three spots above BYU (Provo). That’s the ranking Tuminez cares about most, and she couldn’t ask for much better. “We’re not in U.S. News & World Report,” she said. “We don’t play that game.” (Dr. Gee would concur — he calls U.S. News & World Report one of the most destructive things to ever happen to higher education: “When they play the rating game,” he said, “we end up with a lot of mediocrity.”)
As many universities fight to keep their collective heads above water during the pandemic, UVU has found a way to swim laps — and it doesn’t plan on stopping. The technological revolution is alive and well in the shadow of Silicon Slopes, and that will continue long after masks and social distancing are relics of the past.
“We have to use technology,” President Tuminez said. “If you’re a lagger, you’re going to lose out.” At this rate, there are few laggers — or losers — in Orem.