Editor’s note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.

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 higher education institution has come and says the controversy over the school’s renaming has not did not retain the school.

On July 1, Dixie State University was renamed Utah Tech due to heated opposition from some longtime residents and others on social media sites such as the Defending Southwest Utah Heritage Coalition on Facebook, some of whom have accused state lawmakers who mandated the name change and university officials of going “woke.”

Despite the furor, Williams said the name change has proven to be a good thing so far.

“There will always be that 10% who will always be upset about things and keep snacking online,” the president said. “But I would say the majority of [people] were extremely supportive.

Some numbers seem to lend credence to Williams’ claim. Attendance at school events remains strong and donations to the university are up about 33% from last year, from $2.7 million to $3.6 million, which Williams said , indicates that most people realize that the name change was necessary for the school to move forward in its quest to become a national regional university.

Indeed, many numbers have trended positively since Williams became the institution’s 18th president in 2014, a year after Dixie State College became a university. There are now four master’s programs, up from zero in 2014. Bachelor’s programs have more than doubled over the same period, from 23 to 56. The same is true for associate’s degree programs, which are increased from 10 to 21. The university also added its first clinical doctorate in occupational therapy.

Registrations are also up. It currently stands at 12,556, up 50% from the fall 2014 semester, when the institution welcomed 8,341 new students to campus. Additionally, the number of buildings on the 110-acre St. George campus has grown from 49 to 60 and now covers 1.75 million square feet.

“You come to campus now and it looks like campus, it looks like university,” Williams said from the comfort of his office in the small Atkin administration building, which is dwarfed to the north and south by the Eccles Fine Arts. Center and Human Performance Center, respectively.

In 2016, the university opened the Atwood Innovation Plaza in the former East Elementary School, which is now a hub for budding entrepreneurs and budding businesses.

“We had about 65 companies launched from there,” Williams said. “And we’ve had over 100 patents approved and over 200 submitted by students, faculty and staff.”

Additionally, the university used $15 million allocated by the legislature to purchase 183 acres west of St. George Regional Airport, where the goal is to create an innovation district on part of ownership where students can rub shoulders with innovators and business leaders and get hands-on. -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 his vision, and how he’s able to turn this division into reality,” Devore said. “To me, that’s the number one characteristic of leadership…to bring that vision and reality to life and get everyone on board.”

This view might have been deemed delusional by some when Williams took over in 2014. Some, both on and off campus, saw the college as a glorified high school.

They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s 13th grade if you’re going to Dixie College.’ Well, that changed over time because [the university] earned four-year degrees. And now you don’t hear that at all. Now we have engineering and healthcare programs, business programs and masters programs. So that 13th year is pretty much gone.

Prior to serving as president of Utah Tech, Williams served as provost and vice president of student affairs at Indiana State.

Since arriving in St. George, Williams said he and his wife Kristin have felt at home. The couple serve dinner to hundreds of students at their home each semester. The university organizes the dinners.

Williams says what makes Utah Tech so unique from other schools is that he and others essentially built the institution from the ground up by talking to faculty and students, meeting with city councils, organizing town halls and consulting with business leaders to determine what kind of college and academic programs they wanted.

This is where the orientation of the school as a polytechnic university, centered on science and technology, comes from. While Utah Tech is required by state law to offer a comprehensive curriculum, it places a strong emphasis on healthcare, innovation, and STEM education.

Despite all the progress Utah Tech has made, it’s not without its challenges. To begin with, unlike prestigious polytechnic universities such as Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech, Utah Tech does not choose its students. As an open-access university, it is required to accept people with a high school diploma, regardless of their academic background.

As a result, retention has been an issue. A measure of the number of students who return each year, retention was 54% among first-time full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree in 2014. By increasing student accessibility to academic advisors, peer coaches and guidance counselors, said Williams, that rate is now 59%. Similarly, graduation rates for full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree – over a six-year period – have risen from 18% to 25% since 2014.

While the university needs to meet students where they are, regardless of their academic prowess, Williams is confident that the university now has the support system, academic programs and inclusive atmosphere to help them achieve their educational and professional aspirations.

Affordable housing is another issue. The university has two on-campus dormitories that can accommodate 1,168 students. A third dormitory slated for completion in the fall of 2024 will bring that total to 1,614, well below demand. To make up for that shortfall, Utah Tech is trying to encourage the private sector to build more off-campus student-style housing, but Williams acknowledges that’s a tall order with inflation and rising building materials prices. construction.

Besides dormitories, more brick-and-mortar buildings are needed on campus. The 120,000 square foot science, engineering and technology building completed a year ago is already nearly full. And Williams said the school will likely need to raise $70 million in public and private funds to build a new student center over the next few years.

With student enrollment expected to reach 16,000 by 2025 and increase between 4,000 and 8,000 every five years thereafter, the need for more buildings and other infrastructure will only increase. Nonetheless, Williams said he is rising to the challenges and is optimistic about the years to come.

His message to students: no matter where or what background you come from, “if you want, 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 that.