OGDEN — Following a four-hour public forum Wednesday, a decision on who will serve as Weber State University's 13th president is near.

Four finalists, selected from a broad pool of candidates from all over the nation, participated in the forum, each given 50 minutes to speak and answer questions from WSU staff, students and the general public. A crowd of about 300 attended the event.

Prior to the forum, the finalists met privately with university officials and student groups.

Brad Mortensen, who's been with WSU since 2004 and has served as vice president of University Advancement for 11 years, fielded questions first.

He covered a wide range of topics related to Weber State — things like innovation and technology, the school's role in economic prosperity in Northern Utah, community engagement, campus diversity and inclusion, working with the legislature on funding and higher education issues and more.

Mortensen said Weber State's student body needs to mirror the growth expected to come in Utah. According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, the state's population is expected to reach nearly 6 million by 2065. Utah's current population is just over 3 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We need to grow more," Mortensen said, noting that the school is currently working on a strategic enrollment plan. "We need to make sure we're providing that outlet so that burden isn't only held by other institutions."

According to WSU's website, the university has about 26,000 students.

One audience member asked Mortensen about his stance on speech and expression in a university setting, specifically when that speech or expression might be seen as offensive by some people. Mortensen said he believes it's important to establish that the university is a place to freely exchange ideas, creating a less polarized environment where people can "agree to disagree."

"My position would be to have the discussion(s)," he said.

Katherine Frank, who currently serves as the provost and vice president for Academic and Student Life at Central Washington University and is a professor of English, followed Mortensen.

Like Mortensen, Frank, covered a broad span of topics — staff issues including advocacy, readiness and retention, the role of higher education in environmental sustainability and challenges associated with being a multi-campus and non-traditional student university. 

In addition to its main campus in Ogden, WSU operates seven centers at locations across Northern Utah, from a large, secondary campus in Layton to smaller sites in places like Morgan, Roy, Clearfield, Farmington and in other areas of Ogden.

Frank stressed the importance of properly supporting and marketing off-main campus learning sites, calling them "portals into the community" and something integral for providing new and inclusive learning opportunities. 

Frank Lamas, current vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at California State University, Fresno, touched on many of the same issues previous candidates did, but was also asked about tuition affordability and how it relates to equitable access to higher education for all groups.

"It's a tricky thing," he said. "There was a time when the state or federal government was paying more money, but that changed and the burden shifted to the student."

Lamas said student tuition is a balancing act, with keeping education affordable on one end, and providing high-level staff, faculty and facilities to the student body on the other. In his role at Fresno State, Lamas says he's constantly going to donors and businesses to find more money for scholarships for financial aid and lobbying state lawmakers to keep tuition and fees low. He said he'd strive to do the same at WSU.

"I wish I could promise the exact results that I would want," he said. "That is really dependent on a lot of (factors). But I would do all the things that are humanly possibly to not put that burden too heavily on students."

Melody Rose, who serves as president of Marylhurst University, in Oregon, wrapped up the forum.

She covered many of the same topics the previous speakers did, but spoke at length about diversity and her efforts at previous institutions to "serve the underserved." In addition to advocating for and helping create a diversity office, Rose said also she worked to change the composition of boards and to change university hiring practices to include more people from traditionally disenfranchised groups. 

She said she believes a university president should be a vocal and public crusader on issues related to diversity.

A 21-member search committee spent several months conducting in-person interviews and holding public meetings in an effort to narrow down the candidate pool and select a president.

On Thursday, the Utah State Board of Regents will interview the finalists in a closed session. The board may order a public meeting at WSU’s Shepherd Union Ballroom C at 5:45 p.m. to select the president, but the decision could also be delayed and announced at a later date.

The new president will replace Charles Wight, who announced in January he’d be leaving WSU after a five-year tenure.

Norm Tarbox, vice president of WSU's Administrative Services, was named interim president by the Board of Regents in March. He officially stepped into the position on May 1. 

According to the WSU website, the school has had 20 "leaders" in its nearly 130 year history, but heads of the school were referred to as "principals" until the early parts of the 20th century.

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/mitchshaw.standardexaminer.

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