After just being named the new president of the University of Utah on Thursday, Taylor Randall couldn’t help but think back to 34 years ago, when he was an unsure and nervous freshman bumbling around at the same school he’s about to lead.
In that first semester in 1987, he remembers turning in his first English paper. What he got back was his first F marked brightly in red at the top.
It wasn’t altogether surprising, Randall recalled with a laugh. And at least it was written in the school’s color. But what he remembers most, he said from the podium where the crowd had just been clapping and cheering at his appointment, was that he had a professor who worked with him to improve and change it.
Randall said it took four painstaking rewrites before ending up with a better grade: a B-plus.
It was the proudest B-plus of his college career. Smiling, he said that experience ended up improving and changing him.
“This university transformed me,” Randall noted.
Now, Randall, the current dean of the U.’s prestigious business school, will be heading the school he once attended. His first day is Monday — two weeks before fall classes start and well ahead of schedule for when the Utah Board of Higher Education had anticipated selecting a new president.
His freshman year at the helm begins at a tumultuous time.
Randall will replace former U. President Ruth Watkins, who announced her departure earlier this year, to work for Strada Impact, a national education nonprofit.
Watkins spent three years leading the U., focusing on improving graduation rates and expanding research. But her time was dogged by questions about how student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case was mishandled before and after her murder on campus in October 2018. Randall will still be tasked with dealing with some of that fallout. The campus police chief recently resigned and at least two notices of claims (often precursors to lawsuits), including one from the chief, have been filed against the school related to the case.
During a meeting with students Wednesday, Randall said all the school can do is “say sorry and move forward.”
The school faces continuing challenges, too, due to COVID-19. There’s also more pressure to fund research. Many of the buildings on campus are outdated and will require fundraising to renovate.
And the U. has been working to diversify both its growing student body and staff — but has not yet met its goals.
In his acceptance speech, Randall promised to work on that. He pledged to make the U. “the most inclusive” school in the state. But, in getting the job, Randall, a white man, was selected over two other finalists — Carrie Byington, the executive vice president for the University of California’s medical system, and Jayathi Murthy, the dean over the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA — both women and individuals of color.
The U. has never before had a person of color as its president. And Watkins was the first woman to lead the school. Randall was the only internal finalist for the position.
With that history and the state’s majority white population, it may be no small task to recruit more diverse students and faculty to Utah’s flagship institution. And some students in the meeting with the finalists on campus Wednesday urged the school to go with an outside candidate both to address that and to have a fresh perspective on campus safety.
Randall’s experience, though, in leading the David Eccles School of Business, noted Harris Simmons, chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, will guide him forward. The board unanimously approved Randall’s appointment after reviewing more than 2,500 resumes and applications.
Simmons added: “The Eccles school has prospered under a steady leader who has proven his commitment to students.”
Adding diversity and dealing with COVID
During his 12 years at the business school, Randall has increased the number of tenure and tenure-track female faculty there, Simmons said. He also credited Randall with starting the First Ascent Scholars Program, which provides financial aid for first-generation students and those from underrepresented communities.
“At the end of the day,” Randall said Thursday, “we will be measured by our humanity, who we care for, who we brought in and not who we left behind. I have the faith that we will reach out to this community, and this university will give the gift of higher education to this entire state.”
He said, too, that he has other “big aspirations for this university,” including following up with Watkins’ progress on getting more students to graduate and expanding ways that students can experience learning — online, in person, in internships and more.
“We can be a premier institution and we will be,” he said in front of a red backdrop of the school’s seal. “I have an abiding faith in the students, the faculty and the staff.”
It has been under his leadership that the business school gained a national reputation — including several first place rankings in college publications — for innovation and entrepreneurship. Currently, seven of the school’s programs are also ranked in the top 25 in the country, according to the U.’s news release.
Randall has expanded the institutes and centers at the business school that give students a firsthand look at a career in business or finance with internships, fellowships and jobs. Those include the Sorenson Impact Center and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
And during the past year, he served as the economic lead on Utah’s Unified Command COVID-19 Response Team. He directed his faculty team at the business school to do research on mask-wearing, which concluded that mandating face coverings lowers the incidence of virus infections, saves lives and boosts commercial activity.
“It reduces COVID spread in our communities,” he said at the time, “but it also increases consumer mobility in stores and restaurants and also increases consumer spending.”
He told students Wednesday that he wants to do as much as possible to keep them safe on campus when they return later this month — and he does want them back in person to learn. But his hands are somewhat tied. The Legislature banned the school, as a public college, from instituting vaccine or mask requirements.
“Right now, what we’re doing is probably the most aggressive thing we can do,” he said. “I know to many of you, that probably doesn’t feel very good.”
On Thursday, he wore a mask before accepting the post, pulling off the red and black face covering to reveal a large smile.
‘What lies in front of the University of Utah’
After graduating from the U. in 1990, Randall went on to earn a master of business administration and doctorate in operations and information management from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
He had his first job as a senior consultant at Arthur Andersen LLP, an accounting firm based in Chicago, according to his LinkedIn page.
Then, he joined the staff at the U. in 1999 as a professor of accounting. He served as the faculty director of the University Venture Fund, the largest student-run venture fund in the United States.
Now, as president of the U., he will be tasked with leading a sprawling campus of more than 33,000 students and 23,700 employees, with a top-tier medical complex and a renowned natural history museum — that he’ll have to account for beyond the already award-winning business school.
“There are no better opportunities in higher education and health care in this country,” he said, “than what lies in front of the University of Utah.”
Randall said he wants to replicate his experience as a student there for all students — giving them opportunities to grow and learn and lead — and, mostly importantly, to improve.
From the English class where he got his first F to the theater class where his professor helped him get over his fear of public speaking to becoming the president of the University of Utah, he’s changed.