After a seven-month search for a new University of Utah president, the state Board of Regents on Tuesday named as finalists the school's senior vice president for academic affairs, David Pershing, and Kumble R. Subbaswamy, Pershing's counterpart at the University of Kentucky.
A search committee had submitted four names to the Regents last week, but two withdrew their candidacy because they didn't want their names made public, according to Regents chair David Jordan.
"We are thrilled with our two finalists. We can't make a bad choice," Jordan said. Pershing, a chemical engineer, is among the U.'s most decorated faculty members, while Subbaswamy, a physicist, has a record of administrative leadership at three different universities.
"As a member of the search committee, I can tell you that I am very pleased with the two finalists," wrote U. faculty senate president Patricia Hanna, a linguistics professor, in an e-mail. The Regents' search committee is a diverse group comprised of Regents, U. faculty and staff and a student leader, and outside donors and advisors that has been working since June to identify the three to five best-qualified contenders to succeed Michael Young and lead the state's flagship.
"We have received a wealth of public input over the past few months," said a news release quoting Regent Nolan Karras, a former Utah lawmaker who chaired the search committee. "The support of U. faculty, students and staff, along with the statewide community as a whole has been tremendous throughout this search process."
It is the Utah Regents' long-standing practice to publicly name finalists for top executive posts at the state's public campuses, but some of the candidates apparently were uncomfortable with disclosure. Jordan said he was not troubled that half of the committee's top choices bailed at the last minute, even though he cautioned fellow Regents at a meeting last week to not leak any candidate names because early disclosure could cause some to withdraw.
"This is very common to lose names between the time the search committee submits the list and the Regents announce finalists. They may be finalists at another institution. They may be a sitting president," Jordan said. "This happens all over the country. Although there are only two on the interview list, it is not uncommon for a search to come down to a horse race between two candidates."
The Utah horse race pits a campus insider and outsider. But the finalists, whose resumes boast of a commitment to student success and scientific research, have similar career trajectories.
Both Pershing and Subbaswamy began teaching at their respective universities in the late 1970s and moved up the administrative chain of command, serving as college deans and finally provosts, an institution's chief academic officer. The U. and Kentucky, which squared off in the 1998 NCAA men's basketball final (the Wildcats prevailed), are also similar in terms of enrollment, budget and scope.
Subbaswamy, who became a U.S. citizen in 1986, said he hopes to improve student success as U. president, particularly for undergraduates. The university's invitation to join the Pacific Athletic Conference, he said, was a "watershed moment" that acknowledged the quality of the institution, placing it in an elite group that includes Stanford University and UCLA.
"The next step would be, say, how do we get the [academic] characteristics in the upper echelon of the Pac-12," he said. "That's what I think the university should aspire to because I think it certainly has the support and the potential and the talent to do so."
Subbaswamy said he would immediately tackle the U.'s low graduation rate. Only 58 percent of students graduate within six years, which is lower than many comparable institutions, according to a recent legislative audit. And he wants to make sure Utah's top high school graduates aspire to attend the state's flagship, rather than head out of state or to the private Brigham Young University. He thinks the Honors College and its residence hall, now under construction, are a good start.
Subbaswamy, who has visited Salt Lake City several times with his wife, said he hopes he is "lucky enough" to be picked as president.
"It's a very cosmopolitan city. It's beautiful. The people are extremely nice," he said. "We think we would fit right in with the community. It's very accepting and diverse."
Pershing was traveling Tuesday and not available for interviews. He, too, believes increasing the U.'s academic stature, selectivity and graduation rate are critical to the institution's future, according to recent statements he has made to Utah lawmakers. Sporting cowboy boots and an academician's beard, he has regularly advocated the university's interests before the sometimes skeptical body that controls the purse strings. Pershing enjoys warm relations with U. faculty, although he provoked some angst with a decision last semester to cancel classes on an afternoon when a home football game fell on a weekday.
On Thursday, the finalists will meet privately with U. trustees, faculty, staff and students. Then, the governor-appointed Regents will interview them in closed session Friday before voting on which to hire, either that day or at a later date.
On Thursday, finalists for the University of Utah president's job will meet privately with U. trustees, faculty, staff and students. Then, state Regents will interview them in closed session Friday before voting on which to hire, which may happen at a later date.