The first general discussion of what was to become Western Governors University took place in the summer of 1995 at the meeting of the Western Governors' Association in Park City, Utah. The chair of the association at that time was Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who already understood the revolutionary power of distance learning technologies and foresaw their capacity to assist the western states in addressing one of their most pressing problems—rapid population growth confronted by limited public funds for educational services. Gov. Leavitt was also concerned about some of the limitations presented by higher education that made much-needed change difficult. He came to the Park City meeting ready to suggest a radical new approach to his colleagues.
The Park City meeting surfaced another major theme—the need for increased quality assurance about educational outcomes. Then governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, who had recently chaired the Education Commission of the States, voiced this concern most clearly and became Gov. Leavitt's principal partner in what was to become Western Governors University. The governors agreed that the new university they had in mind would make maximum use of distance learning technologies, would be collaborative among the western member states, and would use competencies rather than seat time as the measure of its outcomes.
Collectively, the governors expressed concern regarding whether graduates coming out of traditional colleges and universities were well-prepared for real-world jobs, and with the difficulty of working with those institutions to respond to the employment needs of their states. This new institution would be different.
While reaffirming their commitment to their traditional colleges and universities, the governors saw the need for a new cooperative approach to meet the emerging challenge and to leverage their investment in these existing institutions. This idea for a joint venture—harnessing the potential of the new information technologies to reach a wider audience and tackling some of the barriers imposed by statutes, policies and administrative regulations at both the state and federal levels—was enthusiastically endorsed. The discussions in Park City produced a shockwave of energy that rolled forward through two years of intense planning. The governors enlisted the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to help design the newly envisioned university. Five themes remained central to the effort: responsiveness to employment and societal needs; a focus on competency-based education; expanding access; cost-effectiveness; and technology infrastructure development of the participating states. The university would be market-oriented, accredited, independent, and degree-granting, though non-teaching. It would focus on two objectives: defining and assessing competencies and creating an online catalog of distance learning courses and other materials that any interested learner could access and use. Rather than waste time and money developing its own courses, duplicating the work already done by countless other institutions, it would collaborate with partnering colleges, universities, corporations, and training organizations to make the best of their distance learning materials available to students.
Western Governors University (WGU) became the official name of the new institution when the governors endorsed the Implementation Plan presented by their design team at the 1996 summer meeting of the Western Governors' Association in Omaha, Nebraska. After reviewing the reports of the WGA design team, the 10 governors present donned their new WGU sweatshirts, unanimously endorsed the implementation plan for a new virtual university called the Western Governors University, and pledged their support for the next phase in the project's development.
Although WGU had a name, a charter, and the beginnings of an online catalog by the summer of 1996, it would be another three years of planning and development before it enrolled its first degree students. No one had ever before tried to develop distance degree programs based exclusively on competencies.
(Adapted from Kinser, K. (1999) The origin, development, and implications of the Western Governors University. Dissertation.)
Article Number: 20362, 1174