Goals, challenges await University of Utah president-elect David Pershing

Published January 28, 2012 9:14 pm
David Pershing's to-do list: Fix utilities, recruit high-achievers.
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David Pershing has been a fixture on the University of Utah campus for 35 years, teaching heat transfer and fluid mechanics to undergraduates, running the engineering college, guiding the U.'s academic and cultural life, and studying simulated blasts and fires.

All of that was just a warm-up for what awaits Pershing as he prepares to move into the presidential suite in March.

His to-do list as U. president-elect is lengthy: Fix the university's decrepit utilities. Shore up graduation rates. Keep tuition in check. Recruit more top-flight students. Connect the university with the entire state. And, of course, get the Utes to the Rose Bowl. As the long-serving VP for academic affairs, he had already launched some of these initiatives, which got a boost after the U. was invited to join the Pacific Athletic Conference in 2010.

One thing Pershing wants to stop is the flight of high-achievers to schools in other states and to Brigham Young University. But that means making it more difficult to get into the U.

"I want every top student in the state to take a look at the University of Utah. Surely some will go to Harvard and Princeton," said Pershing, who arrived at Utah in 1977 as an assistant professor of chemical engineering. "Part of the secret is our new Honors College, where we can give students an Ivy League education for a fraction of the cost."

The state Board of Regents chose Pershing last week from among 80 contenders to succeed Michael Young, now at the University of Washington. Pershing's wife, Sandi, is assistant vice president for continuing education at the U.

Pershing, who is 63, is the first U. president chosen from the campus community in nearly 30 years. Interim president Lorris Betz, who served as senior VP for health sciences during Pershing's tenure over academic affairs, said Pershing had a collaborative style of leading the deans and associate vice presidents.

"He's going to lead the university into fulfilling its flagship status for the state, and that means a university that has relevance to all corners of the state," Betz said. "He'll partner with institutions that don't have the breadth of educational programs those communities need."

Pershing won kudos from faculty leaders, administrators and trustees, many of whom voiced confidence in his ability to engineer a path to excellence.

"Everything he's done, he's done quite well," said economics professor Ken Jameson, who served as Academic Senate president a decade ago. "The university has been quite successful in weathering the downturn and weathering the effect on finances. He can take responsibility for keeping things on an even keel."

Jameson and other observers say Pershing will face some tough choices as higher education is pressured to contain costs. That will mean deciding where to make further investments and where to cut or eliminate.

From pollution fighter to president • Pershing grew up outside Indianapolis and attended Purdue. After graduation, he spent three years in the U.S. Public Health Service in the early 1970s, a time of environmental awakening in the U.S. Pershing decided to enter graduate school to study how to remove pollutants from industrial emissions.

He earned a doctorate in chemical engineering at University of Arizona, analyzing nitrogen-oxide formation during fossil fuel combustion. After his arrival at the U., he climbed the professorial and administrative ranks, garnering most laurels the university bestows on faculty.

Pershing was dean of the College of Engineering in 1998 when Bernie Machen, freshly installed as president, tapped him for the senior vice president post.

"I came to be provost reluctantly. He called me one night and said, 'You are going to get this job. Do you want to talk about it?' " Pershing said. At the time, he had recently received the Rosenblatt Prize, the U.'s highest faculty honor, and landed a massive research grant. He already had earned distinguished teacher and researcher awards, meaning he owned the U.'s trifecta of distinction.

"He had been a successful dean of one of the best colleges and was a tremendous researcher," said Machen, now president of the University of Florida. "Everything good that's happened at the university, Dave has had a significant role in that."

Over his U. career, Pershing played a hand in winning $60 million in research funding, most notably at the Center for the Simulation of Accidental Fires and Explosions, or C-SAFE, which he founded and directed with grants from the Department of Energy. Before C-SAFE, Pershing won a grant to start the U.'s Advanced Combustion Research Center, among the nation's first engineering research groups funded by the National Science Foundation.

"These centers have brought national recognition to the university," said Joann Lighty, who leads the chemical engineering department and was once one of Pershing's graduate students.

But the U. faces challenges that could undermine its stature. Pershing is taking the reins of a campus engaged in 21st-century science and medicine with a 20th-century utility grid that he says is about as reliable as those in Third World countries.

"Our most exciting new building is not much good if we don't have heat coming in and electricity to power the experiments and computers," Pershing told lawmakers on Friday. He is seeking a $50 million appropriation to begin upgrading the campus' aging high-voltage and hot-water distribution systems. Young made the same pitch in each of the preceeding three years, only to be turned down as the problem worsened.

Major outages strike routinely, imperiling experiments and patients, disrupting classes, and making it harder to retain star faculty, officials say. The latest outage on Jan. 9 took half a dozen health science buildings off-line for hours, according to Friday's testimony.

Although not his first visit to the Capitol, Pershing's Friday appearance was a preview of his new role as the university's point person with the larger public.

Pershing said applying for the presidential post was a tough decision: He was happy as provost, a position with an internal focus on faculty and students. The president's role is fixed on the outside world, connecting with lawmakers, donors, civic leaders, other institutions, and the immediate neighborhood, as well as the state's hinterlands, which he intends to engage in ways that past presidents did not.

"It is essential for the University of Utah president to be out in the rural parts of the state," Pershing said. "I want to partner with the schools that exist. We have pioneered that with Dixie [State College]," where the U. conducts graduate level courses in social work and education.


David Pershing's career

1976 • Doctorate in chemical engineering, University of Arizona

1977 • Joins Utah faculty as assistant professor, tenured in 1982

1983 • Associate dean, Graduate School

1987 • Dean, College of Engineering

1998 • Senior vice presidentfor academic affairs

2012 • 15th president of the University of Utah



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