At the end of Utah’s 45-day legislative session in March, I was asked if we could host a ceremonial signing event to celebrate a bill.
This wasn’t an unusual request … except for the subject matter and the guest list.
The legislation centered on the contentious issue of conversion therapy, which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation. And the invitees included both staunchly conservative legislators and community leaders as well as equally passionate LGBTQ and civil rights advocates.
During the session, this unlikely group came together and hammered out a bill that both banned conversion therapy for minors and gave much-needed clarity to therapists, counselors and mental health professionals, allowing discussions of philosophical or religious beliefs. Each group of advocates stood by their heartfelt convictions, yet they found common ground by working in good faith. Incredibly, the bill passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature.
It’s a beautiful example of what in our state we call the “Utah way,” an approach to governing that prioritizes solutions above partisanship and values relationships more than ideologies. At its core, the Utah way brings individuals of different backgrounds and ideas together in a spirit of collaboration to solve problems.
The Utah way is a mindset that invites innovation and challenges the status quo. And I believe it’s a key reason why we are No. 1 in the latest edition of the Best States rankings from U.S. News & World Report.
For example, the Utah way was on display when, earlier this year, the governor’s office asked the state’s human resources leaders to remove the requirement for a bachelor’s degree in state job listings whenever possible and replace it with skills and qualifications that show competency. It’s a practice that we’ve seen adopted by Delta Air Lines and other private sector companies, not to mention some other states, and one that makes sense as our state looks to fill hundreds of vacant positions.
Now, this move could have been seen as an affront to our colleges and universities and could have easily been derailed. But we made sure that higher education officials and university presidents were part of the discussions from the start – so that they understood the sincere intent of this policy move was to address workforce shortages, not to dismantle higher ed. In fact, many of these college and university leaders embraced the idea and began to refocus the value propositions of their academic offerings to ensure competencies were built into degree programs. And supporters of the HR change acknowledged there will always be select jobs – such as doctors, lawyers and engineers – that should maintain their appropriate degree requirements.
The Utah way is also action: a practice that requires creativity, deep listening and a sense of humility.
To me, that was evident last year, when two influential legislators – a white male Republican from rural Utah and a Black female Democrat from the capital city – initiated an effort to create an ethnic studies curriculum for our schools. The effort is ongoing, but the foundation of mutual respect and genuine dialogue modeled by the principal elected officials has set up the process for success.
The Utah way gives us a framework to work out differences and move forward – and I’d encourage other states to learn from our example.
To be sure, the Utah way doesn’t always lead to happy endings. Our state has its fair share of complicated problems, public disputes, name-calling and bad behavior. We’re also not immune to the trends that threaten our quality of life and the hyperpartisanship that disrupts and weakens our cherished institutions.