When many higher education institutions nationwide are stagnant, one university has experienced explosive growth. Since being named President of Utah Tech University, Dr. Richard “Biff” Williams has doubled campus facilities, increased enrollment by nearly fifty percent, added 100+ programs, gone Division 1 in athletics and updated the mission, name, and mascot of the institution.
Under Richard’s leadership, backed by his extensive experience in the education industry for the past 20+ years, Utah Tech University provides hands-on learning in all disciplines at one of the lowest university tuition costs in the United States.
In an interview with Insights Success, Richard provides us with up close and personal excerpts of his journey in the education sector and shares how he’s shaping the future by preparing Utah Tech University students for long-term success.
Below are the highlights of the interview:
Briefly describe your professional journey up until now.
I was destined to work in the education field and have served in this arena throughout my career. In fact, my first job out of college was as a certified athletic trainer for El Paso High School, and I also taught elementary physical education to K-4th grade students at Lamar Elementary School. That job took me out of my element, but I absolutely loved it. It made me fall in love with teaching.
Before joining Utah Tech University as the 18th President of the institution in 2014, I served as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and founding dean of the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services at Indiana State University. Before Indiana State, I served as an associate dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where I was a faculty member, the Athletic Training department chair/program director, and the executive associate director of the School of Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Services.
Educationally, I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Lifestyle Management from Weber State University, a Master’s degree in Athletic Training from Indiana State, and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from New Mexico State University.
What challenges did you face along the way?
One challenge I encountered in my career was learning patience. I’ve always wanted things to happen overnight, but working in large, complex systems with multiple considerations, I’ve learned that progress takes time.
Another challenge is getting into a new position and not feeling fully prepared. You get promoted, think you can do the job, and then realize you still have things to learn. A valuable thing I discovered when I was a dean is that you don’t have to know everything. You have to hire the right people. If you hire good people, you can capitalize on their expertise and let them do their job effectively. This was a challenge at first, but I found the right people and learned to let them take their job and run with it.
What significant impact have you brought to the Education industry?
I think the biggest impact we can have on the education industry is preparing our students to successfully meet workforce demands, which essentially shapes the future. At Utah Tech University, we create hands-on learning and career preparation opportunities to help our students become successful contributors to the workforce as soon as they graduate.
At Indiana State University, as the founding dean of the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services, I had the chance to build a new college from scratch essentially. I was part of a team that added over 20 healthcare programs throughout this process. Initially, our primary health care program was nursing, but we added several necessary health science programs such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other programs with huge workforce demands. The social impact of this growth was profound and was a very rewarding process.
At the University of Northern Iowa, I was able to start an athletic training program that benefitted our community as well. We partnered with high schools, offered acceleration programs, brought clinics to campus, and more. Through this blending of the public and private sectors, we created exponential benefits for all.
Also, as part of my role at Utah Tech, I have had the opportunity to oversee significant growth and transformation. We have added more than 100 academic programs, including the institution’s first graduate degrees. We have also seen a 47 percent increase in student enrollment and the expansion of the campus’s physical footprint by adding six new structures, with two more in development. We’ve also transitioned Utah Tech Athletics to Division I and evolved the institution through a rebrand of the University’s athletic identity to the Trailblazers in 2016 and the institutional name change to Utah Tech University in 2022.
Tell us about Utah Tech University and its foundation pillar.
Since our institution’s inception in 1911, we’ve built a robust and lasting educational foundation as the only university in the fastest-growing county in Utah. As part of our current strategic plan, Trailblazing Distinction, Utah Tech University has developed a unique educational model centered on the four pillars of Open, Inclusive, Comprehensive, and Polytechnic.
Expounding on these pillars, Utah Tech is an open-access institution that promotes inclusivity through personalized services, diverse teaching methods, and access to open educational resources. We have more than 250 programs across all disciplines – humanities, arts, education, health sciences, business, and STEM. Our students learn and grow both in the classroom and online while gaining real-world active learning experiences through internships, externships, clinical experiences, and undergraduate research.
Describe the vision and mission of Utah Tech University.
Utah Tech’s mission is to serve as an open, inclusive, comprehensive polytechnic university featuring active and applied learning to advance students’ knowledge and skills while fostering competent, resilient, lifelong learners to succeed in their careers and personal lives as creators, innovators, and engaged citizens.
Utah Tech’s vision is to be a premier open, inclusive, comprehensive polytechnic university distinguished through an ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship and the achievement of exceptional student learning and success.
What is your take on technology’s importance, and how are you leveraging it?
Technology is the future. From attending meetings virtually to having a robot vacuum in your home, technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. It is also a vital part of higher education, and we know we have to stay nimble and keep up with limitless technological advancements emerging around the globe.
As an institution of higher learning, we have to prepare our students to be indispensable in our ever-changing, tech-driven world. We know it’s imperative that we help our students incorporate technology into even the most basic tasks associated with their careers. We also recognize that in any degree program we consider adding, there will be a technological aspect to it.
For example, a modern-day piano teacher not only teaches the difference between a major and minor chord and other components of music theory, but he must also use social media and digital advertising to market himself while navigating new app technologies for scheduling and payment. A content writer can’t just put pen to paper anymore. She also has to work in the back end of a blog in order to present her content and use the latest online trends to share her messaging.
At Utah Tech, we leverage technology both on and off campus. Classroom instruction maximizes technology from online materials to remote learning options. We’re even currently testing the effectiveness of learning through virtual reality, which will broaden our accessibility and opportunities even more.
Outside of the classroom, Utah Tech students can expand their technology skills thanks to our new partnership with Pluralsight. By teaming up with this technology workforce development company, the University community has unlimited access to thousands of online courses on innovative technology topics to help them compete in an increasingly digital world.
What will be the next significant change in the Education industry, and how are you preparing for it?
As online learning continues to grow, universities need to recognize the importance of the social aspects of the college experience. We need to pay more attention to the role of student activities in college, find ways to cultivate important social interactions, and help students understand how this contributes to their intellectual growth.
Also, with the newfound connectivity of the world post-COVID, we can broaden our reach far beyond our region and interact internationally. For example, Utah Tech will be hosting the next Polytechnic World Summit, bringing together leaders from polytechnic institutions from around the globe to strategize, share best practices, and continue to be responsive to economic trends.
With the gig economy and remote work options growing, we need to adapt to these changing work environments. Given this, we are offering more options for our students, giving them chances to earn degrees and certificates to make them employable throughout their educational experience so that every Trailblazer can feel well-equipped no matter what stage in their journey.
What are your goals for the upcoming future?
As part of Utah Tech’s current strategic plan, we continue to elevate our offerings as an open, inclusive, comprehensive polytechnic university.
We are located in the fastest-growing city in America and are committed to keeping up with this growth as an institution. By adding degree programs in careers with high demand, we can continue to prepare students to meet the needs of the industry. As part of this, I have worked closely with technology and industry leaders to form mutually beneficial partnerships that inform curriculum and prepare our graduates for success.
We are also in the planning stage of developing an Innovation District, a high-impact learning environment where students can prepare for their careers, and companies can find new talent. In this dynamic space, students will network with entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders to gain experience and invaluable mentorship.
What advice would you like to give the next generation of aspiring leaders?
Seize every opportunity to learn! Every day, there are more learning opportunities than there have ever been, and our future leaders will have to take advantage of this. The leaders of tomorrow will have to be skilled in social media, crisis management, and technology and constantly be in tune with where things are moving.
They will have to learn to juggle a lot of information, be able to analyze it, and then make a well-informed plan. Also, you really can make a difference and have fun while doing so.