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The 20 Year History of WGU 1997-2017

Jul 28, 2017

Education changes lives. It opens doors to new opportunities, creates new ways of thinking, and has an impact for generations to come. Twenty years ago, a visionary group of governors saw a new pathway to educational opportunity through technology and a different learning model. This is the story of Western Governors University -- a university that started with an idea and has grown to become one of the nation's largest universities.

Mike Leavitt: "We had to reinvent an alternative process, not to replace traditional higher education, but to supplement, to serve populations that were not properly served by the existing system."

Dr. Chip Johnstone: "Somewhere in early 1997, I heard about WGU as a wild idea in the west, and it was immediately fascinating to me."

Pat Partridge: "Wow, this is a university, this is a group of people that are willing to take on a really big challenge without a lot of resources."

Bill Simmons: "The governors had this incredible idea, but it was married by Mike Leavitt's vision of utilizing technology for higher education."

Jim Geringer: "The worldwide web, as it was called the worldwide web consortium, that came in 1993. Here we are discussing technology in '95. If you haven't lived through that, you can't grasp how far we've come since then."

Dell Loy Hansen: "Now we had this strange new tool called the internet, and there was a way that people could be educated online which was a new word. So, these were revolutionary concepts, and what a beauty to watch these great men gather to form a revolution to change society."

Mike Leavitt: "We believe that this new, more innovative approach to higher education needed to include both new technology and a fundamental shift in what we measure."

In January 1997, WGU's articles of incorporation were signed, and Western Governors University was born. With initial financial support of government, foundations, and private industry, WGU was on its way.

Dr. Chip Johnstone: "There were 12 of us, and we had Christmas dinner with all the staff and our spouses. That was the entire operation. It was this thing that we were going to build from scratch."

Roy Romer: "The most radical two elements of this new idea is it is competency based, and it is student oriented."

Dr. Chip Johnstone: "What was truly radical was the notion that students could progress toward their degrees by demonstrating competence. That meant that if you really had the knowledge and experience and could demonstrate that affectively, you could proceed toward your degree as rapidly as you were able. That was truly unusual."

Key leaders in higher education were instrumental in the development and acceptance of WGU. These included Clara Lovett, then president of Northern Arizona University, and Sam Smith, then president of Washington State University. Two years later, WGU opened its virtual doors.

Mike Leavitt: "Overcoming thousands of years of tradition is no small task, and higher education has essentially thought the same way about the learning process for a long time."

Bill Simmons: "There is a real negative reaction that this was going to threaten everything that higher education stood for."

Dr. Janet Schnitz: "There were many hurdles and misunderstandings about what technology could do to help with teacher education."

Dell Loy Hansen: "It needed credibility, and most universities fought this concept of not having a bricks and mortar building with a university president and a 200 year history."

Mike Leavitt: "WGU was at a very critical moment. We were facing at least two or three more years before we were accredited. We were running out of money. We had lots of skeptics. We needed a new leader."

Bob Mendenhall: "My message is that it's possible to have high quality, affordable higher education, but it will require new models, not just tweaking the existing system."

Mike Leavitt: "I was connected to Bob, who at that time had just left IBM as their global leader for education. As we talked, it became evident to me that this was the right person."

Bob Mendenhall joined WGU in 1999. By the end of that year, the first programs in IT and education were launched. One year later, WGU celebrated its first graduate, Genny Kirch.

Bob Mendenhall: "A couple years of great planning had taken place, and the foundation for the educational model was already in place. We had a challenge to gain accreditation."

Dr. Chip Johnstone: "To get four essentially four regions to agree that WGU met standards for accreditation was a first in higher education, and it was a hurrah experience. The day we were granted that, we all celebrated. It was just party time."

With regional accreditation, enrollment began to climb.

David Simmons: "We all knew that growth would be there if the model was working right, if the students were satisfied with its success."

At about the same time WGU launched its Teachers College with a grant from the Department of Education, enrollment took off. The addition of the College of Health Professions in 2008 sent it soaring.

Newscaster: "Tonight we introduce you to a university aimed at adult students who don't have time for traditional bricks and mortar schools. It turns out, that's just what many Americans find they need as they rush to reinvent themselves."

Dell Loy Hansen: "Bob proved that this was a very viable university, and very essential, and very credible. WGU could not have become who it is, literally, without Bob Mendenhall."

WGU's quality, affordability, and learning model soon began to attract a new generation of governors. In 2010, WGU launched its first state based university, WGU Indiana. Over the next few years, five more states partnered with WGU.

Male: "They all immediately got the vision of what the governors were really trying to accomplish."

Heather Saulnier: "When I started WGU as a single parent, and it was very hard for me to accomplish my dreams or even understand what my dreams were because I felt like I was limited on my options. Since working with WGU and really understanding the mission has not only served me in my personal life, but it's served thousands of students across the country."

David Grow: "When I started in 2005, WGU had 3,500 students. Today, 2017, our student population is over 80,000."

Scott Pulsipher: "I recognize, among our graduates, that their degree mattered more to them than mine did to me, and I recognized that it changed their life. It did something for them that nothing else previously could do. I saw that our fundamental purpose at WGU is to change the lives of individuals and families. That is what we do."

Twenty years is a very short time for a university. But in this 20 years, WGU has pioneered a new learning model, continued to innovate to improve the student experience and student outcomes, and has helped change the lives of more than 85,000 individuals and their families. And we are just getting started.

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