OGDEN -- Last week, Weber State University President Chuck Wight was making his way to a serious educational forum when he was stopped by students hosting a Shepherd Union Building carnival, and they were intent on draping Wight with snakes.
"My job is exciting and unpredictable, and that's just the way I like it," said Wight, who took office in January.
Wight allowed the students to dangle two boa constrictors around his neck, and he posed for cellphone photos.
"When I was selected, there was nothing in my contract about boa constrictors," Wight said with a laugh.
Wight said earlier this year he would spend his first 100 days observing and talking to students and faculty members. After 100 days, he said, he would be better able to talk about plans to lead the school to a brighter future.
Wight's 100-day "honeymoon" ended late last week, and he has agreed to share some thoughts and plans.
"I think it's a terrific place," Wight said of WSU. "Today, I was in a long-range planning meeting, trying to peer into the future and figure out what it holds, and we get to invent it."
Wight said one of the biggest challenges facing traditional universities is competition from online courses. More and more websites offer courses that often are free.
"I took a course on cryptography last summer," Wight said. "It was created by a Stanford professor, and I learned a lot about cryptography. I had about 40,000 classmates. I got the education without the credit, but it was free."
Universities like WSU award credit but also charge significant tuition. Degrees from traditional universities seem to be held in much higher regard when listed on resumes and applications for employment or graduate school, but there's no guarantee that will remain the status quo in the future.
Wight noted that just as free online content, even of dubious quality, poses a threat to legitimate journalism operations, online courses and degree programs of unproven quality may pose a threat to legitimate institutions of higher learning.
Wight said Weber State's strategy will be to keep tuition costs as low as possible and to "explore the concept of using more hybrid courses to meet student needs."
Hybrid courses, as Wight describes them, would include elements of online instruction and classroom discussion.
Students would study class material by reading and watching online lectures at the start of each study unit. Classroom time with professors could be reduced, perhaps from three sessions per week to two, and could be devoted more to discussion and problem solving, rather than introduction of that material.
Computer labs to practice material would also be part of the equation, as would student study and review groups. Hybrid courses would work best for lower-level classes attended by large numbers of undergraduates, Wight said.
"Hybrid classes put more responsibility for learning on students," Wight said. "It's something professors across the country have been experimenting with, having students do a lot of work on their own, and using class time to discuss and refine. Student initiative and self-discipline is absolutely critical for success in college."
Hybrid classes would allow Weber State to maintain its small average class size, Wight said. Classes average about 20 students per course, with larger numbers in basic classes and smaller numbers in advanced courses.
"Small classes provide the kind of intimate atmosphere where faculty members can get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses, and help students to learn," Wight said.
With WSU enrollment at an all-time high of about 26,000 students this term, the challenge will be to maintain small class sizes and the intimate learning experience while allowing faculty members to use their time more efficiently, Wight said.
Students taking more responsibility will be key, he said.
"In high school, your education was your teachers' responsibility," Wight said. "In college, you are responsible, and you share responsibility with your professors. The sooner you accept that, the better prepared you will be for life."
Wight said other Weber State programs he would like to see developed or increased include the ongoing plan to help define Ogden as a college town and the Dream Weber Scholarship program.
Wight is continuing work with Ogden city to use a downtown building as a site for a bookstore and cafe, with the ability to sell tickets to WSU sporting and cultural events. In time, Wight hopes the site could also serve as a center for WSU continuing education courses.
And Wight would like to see more people made aware of the Dream Weber program, which matches low-income students with scholarships and private funding, so money is not a barrier to those truly motivated to seek an education.
For details on the Dream Weber program, founded in 2010, visit www.weber.edu/dreamweber/default.html.