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St George • After eight years at the helm of what is now Utah Tech University, President Richard “Biff” Williams is proud of how far the college has come and says the controversy over the school’s name change didn’t hold the school back.
On July 1, Dixie State University was renamed Utah Tech, over strong opposition from some longtime residents and others on social media sites such as the Defending Southwest Utah Heritage Coalition on Facebook, some of whom blamed state lawmakers for overseeing the name change had arranged, and university officials go “woke up.”
Despite the excitement, Williams said the name change has proven to be a good thing so far.
“There’s always going to be that 10% that will still get upset about things and will continue to pick around online,” the president said. “But I would say the majority [people] gave us a lot of support.”
Some numbers seem to lend credence to William’s claim. Attendance at school events remains high, and donations to the university are up about 33% year over year, from $2.7 million to $3.6 million a national regional university.
In fact, many numbers have been trending in a positive direction since Williams became the institution’s 18th president in 2014, a year after what was then Dixie State College became a university. Since 2014, there are now four master’s courses. The number of bachelor courses has more than doubled from 23 to 56 in the same period. The same applies to the Associate Degree Programs, which have increased from 10 to 21. The university also added its first clinical doctorate in occupational therapy.
Enrollment is also on the rise. It currently stands at 12,556, up 50 percent from the fall semester of 2014, when the institution welcomed 8,341 new students to campus. In addition, the number of buildings on the 110-acre St. George campus has increased from 49 to 60 and now encompasses 1.75 million square feet.
“Now you come onto campus and it feels like a campus, it feels like a university,” Williams said from the comfort of his office in the tiny Atkin Administration Building, which runs north and south from the Eccles Fine Arts Center into the Is shadowed or Human Performance Center.
In 2016, the university opened the Atwood Innovation Plaza in the former East Elementary School, which is now a hub for young entrepreneurs and emerging companies.
“About 65 companies fought their way out there,” Williams said. “And we’ve approved over 100 patents and submitted more than 200 from students, faculty and staff.”
Additionally, the university used $15 million provided by state legislatures to purchase 183 acres west of St. George Regional Airport, where the goal is to create an Innovation District on a portion of the property where students can meet innovators and business leaders can get in touch and lend a hand -on training and educational experiences. It is also expected to generate $100 million or more in economic activity, according to university officials.
Matt Devore, former student body president and now director of student outreach services at the university, says much of the credit for the school’s rapid rise is due to Williams and his leadership.
“I’m amazed at his work ethic and vision and how he’s able to make this split a reality,” said Devore. “For me, that’s the key attribute of leadership…to implement that vision and reality, and to create buy-in from everyone.”
When Williams took over in 2014, that vision was viewed by some as delusional. Some, both on and off campus, viewed the college more as a glorified high school.
They say, ‘Oh, it’s 13th grade when you go to Dixie College.’ Well, that’s how things changed over time [the university] received four-year degrees. And now you can’t hear it at all. Now we have engineering and health programs and business programs and masters programs. So 13th grade is as good as gone.”
Before becoming President of Utah Tech, Williams was Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs for the State of Indiana.
Since arriving in St. George, Williams said he and his wife Kristin have felt right at home. The couple serves dinner to hundreds of students at their home each semester. The university will provide dinner.
Williams says what makes Utah Tech unique from the rest of the schools is that he and others essentially built the institution from the ground up by speaking to faculty and students, meeting with city councillors, holding town hall meetings and interacting with business leaders consulted to specify what type of university and academic programs they wanted.
This resulted in the orientation of the school as a polytechnic university – with a scientific and technical focus. While required by state law to provide a comprehensive curriculum, Utah Tech places a strong emphasis on healthcare, innovation and STEM education.
Despite all the advances that Utah Tech has made, it is not without its challenges. First of all, unlike prestigious polytechnics like Texas Tech and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, Utah Tech does not have the ability to choose its students. As an open-access university, it is obliged to accept people with a high school diploma, regardless of their academic background.
As a result, storage was an issue. A measure of how many students are returning each year in 2014 was 54% for freshman and full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree. By improving students’ accessibility to academic advisors, peer coaches and career counselors, Williams said that rate is now 59%. Likewise, graduation rates for full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree have increased from 18% to 25% over a six-year period since 2014.
While the university must meet students where they are, regardless of academic ability, Williams is confident that the university now has the support system, academic programs, and inclusive atmosphere to help them achieve their educational and career goals reach.
Affordable housing is another issue. The university has two student residences on campus, which together house 1,168 students. A third residence, due for completion in fall 2024, will bring that total to 1,614 — well short of demand. To bridge that deficit, Utah Tech is trying to encourage the private sector to build more off-campus student housing, but Williams concedes that given inflation and rising building material prices, that’s a tall order.
Aside from dormitories, more brick and mortar buildings are needed on campus. The 120,000 square meter Science, Engineering and Technology Building, which was completed a year ago, is already almost full. And Williams said the school will likely need to raise $70 million in public and private funding to build a new student center over the next few years.
With student enrollment projected to reach 16,000 by 2025, and growing between 4,000 and 8,000 every five years thereafter, the need for more buildings and other infrastructure will only increase. Still, Williams said he’s embracing the challenges and optimistic about the years to come.
His message to students: No matter where you come from or what your background is, “if you’re ready, we’ll help you become an engineer or a doctor, a teacher or an artist… We’ll give you the support you need to do it.”
https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2022/11/22/so-long-dixie-donations-rise/ Donations to Utah Tech increase after name change, President says