Computer classes in McKay School led to Mendenhall's becoming a university president and CEO

When McKay School distinguished alumnus Robert Mendenhall began his undergraduate studies at BYU, he thought he was headed for law school; then a job offer during his senior year resulted in a major change of plans. Today, having earned his doctorate from BYU in 2003 in instructional psychology and technology and serving in varied professional capacities, he is the president and CEO of Western Governors University and an advocate of its online, competency-based education methods.

Mendenhall’s interest in computer teaching began when he accepted a position at BYU’s Computer Teaching Resource Center. “I was fascinated by computer teaching,” he recalls. “I did a lot of research and found that it allows students to learn at their own pace and access material as they need it. I thought, ‘This is the way to learn.’”

In 1980, Mendenhall founded Wicat Systems, Inc., a company that provided computer-based training for corporations and K–12 students. Wicat later merged with Jostens Learning Corporation, where Mendenhall served as executive vice president.

From 1994 to 1997, Mendenhall was general manager of IBM’s K–12 education division, where he oversaw everything that IBM sold to K–12 schools. His work dealt primarily with a classroom system allowing students to work with computers for much of their instruction.

In 1999, Mendenhall became president and CEO of Western Governors University (WGU), which offers online degrees in business, information technology, K–12 teacher education, and health professions. The university caters to working adults who have developed competency through workplace training but need a degree to advance in their careers. WGU is innovative in that it measures student competency through various assessments instead of a number of credit hours. “Our system measures output rather than input. Once you demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills, you graduate,” Mendenhall explains.

In addition to creating a new model of higher education, WGU is designed to increase access to education for those who would otherwise have difficulty obtaining it. The majority of WGU students are underserved in some way, being either rural, low income, minority, or first-generation college students.

Mendenhall hopes that the competency-based education methods used by WGU will be passed on through its K–12 teacher education students. “Our goal is to link competency to the development of classrooms,” he explains. “We want to ensure that teachers develop the best student learning for each individual.”

Mendenhall and his wife, Kathy, live in Salt Lake City. They have seven children and two grandsons.

"The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the main accreditor for teacher training, has for the first time approved accreditation for an online institution. Western Governors University, a virtual institution, received accreditation from the council. Receiving this specialized accreditation from a prestigious organization like the council [promotes] the university’s teacher education program, even among students who are skeptical of the quality of online education." —Dan Carnevale

To read more about virtual teacher training, go to

March 2007