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'Students must be job No. 1,' new U. of Utah president proclaims

Published October 25, 2012 9:40 pm

Higher ed • David Pershing vows to enhance the flagship's undergraduate experience.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

University of Utah President David W. Pershing on Thursday unveiled a sweeping set of initiatives and proposed facilities designed to ensure U. students enjoy a high-quality education at an affordable price and graduate on time, but also aimed at attracting and keeping the caliber of faculty necessary to sustain a world-class research institution, build international ties and drive new technologies into the marketplace.

As the season's first snow blanketed the campus, he vowed to refocus the university's priorities on student success during his inaugural address as the flagship's 15 president in Kingsbury Hall. That starts with limiting undergraduate admissions to those who can show they will succeed in college, he said.

"Students must be job No. 1," Pershing told an audience packed with deans, trustees, presidents, regents and other dignitaries, including Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Beginning today, freshman applicants will be considered holistically. We will go beyond grades and test scores."

The university will look at applicants' maturity, civic engagement, extracurricular interests and the types of courses they took in high school.

"We are no longer going to incentivize students to take easier courses just so they can get better grades," he said. "That is crazy. We are going to stop doing that."

The new president went on to lay out a strategic vision that emphasized diversity among students and faculty, sustainability, affordability, and academic excellence.

Pershing, 63, is a chemical engineering professor who joined the U. faculty in 1977 and rose through various administrative appointments, including provost. He was named president in January, succeeding Michael Young, who left in 2011 to lead the University of Washington.

"Dave has already expended much energy and enthusiasm in our behalf," said U. trustees chair Clark Ivory. "He is absolutely committed to moving this university forward. He has traveled the state to forge new relationships. Dave is an articulate and compelling advocate for education. He has a laser focus on student success. He knows the university well, he knows Utah. He values imagination, collaboration, hard work and community."

After spelling out Pershing's charge, regent Bonnie Jean Beesely, who chairs the state board that selected him, hoisted the heavy presidential medallion around his neck.

Thursday's event included performances by university choral and orchestral groups, including the Toy Story theme song — a nod to animation innovator and U. alumnus Ed Catmull — and the Phantom of the Opera selection "All I Ask of You," which Pershing proclaimed among "my favorite songs of all time." Pershing and his wife Sandi walked out of Kingsbury with the U. marching bands' members performing on either side of the entrance.

A week of inaugural festivities wraps up with Saturday's Pac-12 football showdown with the University of California.

After Pershing's introductory remarks paying homage to the U.'s pioneer origins, he ditched his academic regalia in favor of sharp business attire and paced the stage in his trademark cowboy boots, delivering a multi-media presentation that was more in the style of Steve Jobs than the traditional occupant of an ivory tower's penthouse.

He announced ambitious plans for a 400-bed residential entrepreneurship institute, with the financial help of retired mining magnate Pierre Lassonde, and proposals to further internationalize the university, which is already exploring establishing a campus in South Korea. The school is raising money to set up a global strategy and leadership academy in downtown Salt Lake City and expand its area studies programs.

"The world is a shrinking place. We must expose our students to other languages, cultures, and religions. This is no longer a luxury," Pershing said.

He also identified the family of the late Novell founder Ray Noorda as the philanthropists behind a $30 million pledge to start a School of Dentistry. The 70,000-square-foot school, which will be named in honor of Ray and Tye Noorda, is to be built in Research Park and completed by late 2014 — although it will admit its first cohort of 20 students next fall.

But Pershing's strongest words were geared toward Utah's young adults, whom he hopes the U. will prepare for success in life and the workforce.

"We want students to select courses that excite them, not just to check off some box for graduation," Pershing said. He intends to make a "presidential promise" to every entering student that at some point during their education, they will get to do research in the lab of a top scientist, star in a student play, study abroad in Italy or pursue some kind of experience that will change their life.

The challenge will be to ensure enough "signature" opportunities are available and to connect students with ones that are right for them.

Pershing highlighted Livinia, a widowed mother of four, now majoring in political science with the hope of becoming a lawyer, and Oliver, a student who lacked a rudder until he landed a campus job and joined the Associated Students of the University of Utah.

"It's stories like these that cemented my resolve to ensure all student have a transformative experience while they are here. My vision is quite simple; it is to ensure a supportive environment for creative doers," Pershing said.

bmaffly@sltrib.com