The Western Governors University: An Interview with Jeff Livingston
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1998, 6(4), 2-4. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

The Western Governors University (WGU) will open its virtual doors this summer. Because of the potential size and scope of the institution, and because it will award competency-based degrees, WGU signals a major change in the future of higher education. Jeff Livingston, the CEO, is a former faculty member who ventured into administration and stayed, last serving as an academic officer for the Utah System of Higher Education before joining WGU.

James Morrison (JM): Jeff, WGU is a bellwether for higher education. What were the major factors that led the Western governors to begin a virtual university? What are WGU’s goals and vision?

Jeff Livingston (JL): There were several main goals the governors had in mind, which led to WGU’s vision. These goals included expanding access to postsecondary education, reducing the costs of providing educational opportunities, and providing a means for learners to obtain formal recognition of the knowledge they acquire through technology-based learning. One major goal was to shift the focus of education to the actual competence of students and away from “seat time,” and with this shift to create high performance standards that could be widely accepted and would serve to improve the quality of postsecondary education. In addition, the governors sought to demonstrate new approaches both to teaching and to assessment that could be adopted and adapted by more traditional colleges and universities.

JM: How is WGU organized?

JL: WGU is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with the administrative office located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the academic office located in Denver, Colorado. As CEO, I head a staff of seven employees who focus on development, marketing, budget, and policy. Bob Albrecht, the chief academic officer, heads a staff of eight employees in Denver who focus on curriculum development, customer relations, and provider relations. Bob and I report to the fourteen-member WGU Board of Trustees, consisting of governors and representatives of higher education and industry who are elected by the eighteen member-governors of WGU.

WGU does not employ faculty in the traditional sense. WGU does have faculty who establish outcome and performance standards for all WGU degree certification programs and who ensure quality assurance in the degree-granting process. WGU faculty do not develop content, nor do they teach courses. We contract with third-party providers to develop course content. We also broker courses and programs from existing institutions and providers. We will establish a network of local centers in participating states to aid students in obtaining access to technology and student services.

JM: How is WGU financed?

JL: Because WGU is a nonprofit corporation, we have received start-up financing from several different sources. Member states each contributed a one-time payment of $100,000 when they joined. The majority of start-up financing is coming from eleven corporations and foundations whose representatives hold a seat on the WGU National Advisory Board, which serves at the pleasure of the WGU Board of Trustees. Colorado recently awarded WGU a significant grant for curriculum development. These funds will be used to develop approximately ten more competency-based programs. WGU will collect tuition from students and will remit it to those institutions or other entities that provide the curriculum content. WGU will get revenue from providers that list their courses and content on the SmartCatalog—our trademarked online course directory—and from students who register for our courses and degrees. We anticipate being self-supporting by the year 2006.

JM: What are the unique, distinctive characteristics of WGU?

JL: WGU is unique in several ways, especially with regard to our offering of competency-based degrees and credentials. The WGU SmartCatalog/Advisor delivery mechanism is unique as well. Students with access to the Internet or WGU local centers, or those who choose to dial in to the WGU 1-800 number, will be able to log on to the catalog. The catalog will assist students in developing their own personal profiles. These profiles will enable us to determine learner types and needs for furthering their education. Profiles will also provide us with students’ suggestions and recommendations for course offerings. In addition, the SmartCatalog/Advisor will give students access to WGU student services, including an on-line bookstore, library, and available student advisors and mentors. These are just a sampling of what WGU will be able to offer students.

JM: How will WGU deliver courses?

JL: WGU will be open to all methods of technology. Means of delivery may include on-line, video, satellite, or mailed correspondence. In addition, WGU will offer both synchronous and asynchronous delivery of courses, depending on the provider. In synchronous classes, students will be on a set schedule, such as a quarter or semester. With asynchronous courses, students can begin at any time and work at their own pace to finish within a more open-ended time frame.

JM: What will be the initial academic offering?

JL: WGU will initially offer two competency-based degree programs: an Associate of Arts Degree and an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Electronic Manufacturing Technology. WGU has just secured a $3 million grant from the State of Colorado to be used for the development of additional competency-based degree programs. Our goal is to have ten to twelve additional degree programs ready to go within the next two years.

The initial academic offering will include distance-delivered courses submitted by existing institutions and providers. The number of courses will continue to grow as WGU opens up to more states, and as more institutions join in providing content.

JM: You use the term competency-based degree programs. How do you go about guaranteeing that WGU graduates will be competent in their fields of study?

JL: No one can guarantee competency, but we can certify performance by using various assessments that are valid indicators of competency acquisition. A standing assessment council composed of individuals with a substantial knowledge of performance assessment will supervise the credentialing process. The council is charged with ensuring the technical adequacy of all assessments offered by WGU, reviewing program council performance descriptions and working with program councils to develop specifications for adequate placement and credentialing assessments, and reviewing existing assessment instruments and technologies to determine their suitability for use as part of the WGU credentialing process. The council will solicit assessment instruments from third parties and will provide general oversight for the assessment process, including periodically reviewing the assessment activities of local centers.

JM: What are the major issues and considerations WGU is grappling with now?

JL: Two key issues are federal financial aid and accreditation. WGU has been fortunate to have met with the U.S. Department of Education on several occasions, to discuss the option of advancing financial aid opportunities to distance learning students. WGU is currently in the process of discussing options with the Department of Education so that WGU degree-seeking students will have access to federal financial aid while steps are being taken to find a more permanent solution to the problem through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Concerning a second crucial issue, WGU is currently in the process of seeking accreditation through a consortium entitled the Inter Regional Accrediting Committee (IRAC). IRAC is a sixteen-member committee, consisting of four individuals from each of four different accrediting commissions: the Commission of Institutions of Higher Education, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; the Commission on Colleges, Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges; the Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges; and the Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges. These commissions approve the accreditation of institutions in WGU member states (with the exception of Texas and Indiana). IRAC has developed a set of common requirements for the four associations that will be used to determine WGU’s eligibility for candidacy. As a result, IRAC will be able to approve WGU’s eligibility and ultimately its accreditation status.

JM: What are your immediate plans for development beyond what you have already described?

JL: We are continually reaching out to add more member states. Most recently, the state of Indiana has joined WGU, extending our reach even further east, and we are hopeful that we will soon see other states join.
        The implementation process of WGU will continually enter new phases. As our state membership and student enrollments grow, the SmartCatalog/Advisor and course offerings will continue to grow as well. WGU will always be looking to the next plateau in order to continue to offer students increased educational opportunities in a cost-effective manner.

JM: Jeff, many thanks for your time, for I know that you are riding a whirlwind getting this important enterprise off the ground. You are leading not only WGU into the twenty-first century but higher education as well. We give you our best wishes for success.

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