As he was sitting in the stands during halftime and waiting for the women’s basketball team to come back onto the court, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox thought he recognized the man sweeping the polished floors.
Cox squinted, not sure he was right. He turned to his friend next to him: “Is that who I think it is?”
Almost like he was answering, University of Utah President Taylor Randall looked up from where he stood on the hardwood and smiled back at the governor, waving one hand and holding onto a broom with the other.
Cox laughed, recalling the encounter Wednesday, saying he never expected to see the leader of the state’s flagship school cleaning the floors during a sporting event. But it was at that moment a few months ago, the governor said, that he realized Randall was the right fit to guide the U. forward, willing to jump in wherever it takes to see the school succeed.
“He is humble,” Cox said. “And I am grateful to have a president who will carry the burden and the load of the great people of this state.”
Randall, who was selected as the school’s president in August and previously served as the dean of the U.’s prestigious business school, was formally inaugurated Wednesday. He is the first president in 50 years to also be an alumnus of the school, where he graduated with a business degree in 1990 and started working in 1999. And he stood under projected photos of his dad and grandfather, who also worked there before him.
It was a ceremony that had the 1,500 people in the audience at Kingsbury Hall laughing and crying and clapping along with him as Randall shared his hopes and dreams for the school. One of those dreams, the new president joked, had long been on his bucket list: to sweep the floors of a basketball game. “And doggone it, I got to do it,” he said, with a nod toward Cox, who was sitting on stage.
His tenure, though, as the 17th president of the institution begins at a tumultuous time, as he will be tasked with dealing with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and worldwide worries among college-age youth about climate change and war.
The new president also replaces former U. President Ruth Watkins, who announced her departure last year. She struggled with questions about how student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case was mishandled before and after her murder on campus in October 2018. Watkins, who is now president of national education nonprofit Strada Impact in Indianapolis, did not attend the ceremony, but three previous university presidents sat in the auditorium.
Randall acknowledged in his speech that he will continue to address and improve campus safety. Some of that will be responding, too, to how students of color have been treated and some of whom say they feel unprotected at the school.
He started his speech saying that he is inheriting “an institution that is just poised for remarkable success.” But the U. must move forward, he added, in more inclusive ways. In addition to those issues, the president outlined where he’ll start with these five goals.
1. Increase on-campus housing
The U. has expanded its dorms in recent years, but it has still not been enough to meet the demand. This fall, hundreds of students were left on the waitlist to get in. And some were shuffled into the University Guest House hotel.
During his inauguration, Randall announced that the school would build a new 755-bed dorm called the Impact Epicenter.
“It’s only the beginning of infrastructure that we will build,” he said. “We want to dispel the notion that the university is a commuter campus.”
The new dorm will be similar to the Lassonde Studios housing currently on campus, where students have workspaces to collaborate on entrepreneurship and business projects. The Impact Epicenter will be focused on students interested in working on social justice issues, Randall said, including poverty and racism.
“We need to think of our campus as less of a classroom and more of an experience,” Randall said.
Nahum Tadesse, a junior majoring in political science and international studies, said after the inauguration that he thinks more campus housing would help students engage in their education. He currently lives in the dorms. He noted, though, that he wants Randall to make sure he is thinking about affordability in his plans and making sure marginalized students don’t get cut out.
2. Change the freshmen experience to be more hands-on
On a similar note, Randall intends to transform the experience for first-year students.
He said he wants all freshmen to jump in immediately with lab research, study abroad trips and field work — immersing them in their education.
“It will start when our freshmen walk in the door,” he said. “This is a revolution for our students … a playground where anything is possible.”
He said he wants first-year students to be studying the molecules to change cancer treatment, experimenting with climate change at field sites or traveling to Europe to study Chaucer. Randall noted that he believes this will make the U. a destination school and a top 10 public institution where students around the country want to go.
The program will be called “Utah Fresh,” and Randall anticipates 80% of freshmen participating.
3. Grow the student body
Randall has an ambitious goal of increasing the student population at the U. to 40,000 over the next 10 years.
That will be a challenge as the school’s growth has stagnated over recent years,until an increase of about 1,400 students this fall.
But the new president said this will be accomplished with a new campus currently in the works in Herriman — a partnership with Salt Lake Community College. In two years, he expects that to be producing 7,000 graduates between the two schools.
“A key part of this is meeting students where they actually are,” he said, noting that the school needs to expand in the west side communities of Salt Lake County, in particular. Gov. Cox echoed that, saying the school shouldn’t just serve the Avenues or the East Bench. It should also consider rural Utah.
Randall said a large part of this is removing barriers based on socioeconomic status. He wants to particularly students, he said, who might think they can’t go to college because of the cost.
4. Boost research
The new president also wants to build on the U.’s research-driven mission.
His plan is to increase funding over the next seven years to where the university would be bringing in $1 billion annually from major institutes to go toward research.
Randall pointed to past milestones from the U., including being one of the original nodes of the ARPANET, implanting the first artificial heart and now looking into the connections of cancer and genetics. He also mentioned U. researchers currently studying opioid addiction and diabetes and applauded efforts to improve “the major challenges of our day.”
Harris Simmons, the chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, said the school’s research efforts are “a trajectory pointed straight at the sky.” And he encouraged Randall to celebrate all discoveries and breakthroughs as success for the entire world.
5. Help the broader Utah community
Randall said the university should take its knowledge and resources and pour those into the state.
He proposed the President Public Impact Scholars program that will nominate high-achieving faculty to share their expertise with the community, focusing on solutions.
Additionally, Randall announced that the plans for a new hospital complex in West Valley City will be updated into a community hub. That will include 1,500 employees, with programs for them to learn other skills and move up in medical careers. And it will have resources, too, for child care and tutoring for high school students in the community.
Jaina Lee, a senior in anthropology and health, society and policy, said she sees that hub as a way to “engage Utah in the larger sense.” She said she has also already been impressed with Randall’s efforts to do that with addressing racism.
Recently, the U.’s Black Cultural Center was the target of a bomb threat, and a Black student reported finding what they believed to be feces smeared on their dorm room door.
Randall said the mission of the school is more than just educating its 33,000 undergraduate students; it’s uprooting injustices, building a community and bettering Utah. He spent the day before his inauguration lobbying the community in a “Collective Day of Action” focused on combatting biases and prejudices.
Tadesse, the junior, said is empowering to see the president trying to address issues and unify the community on difficult subjects.
“Often times when people get into positions of power, such as president of the university, it’s easy to stick with the status quo,” he said. “But Taylor Randall seems to have bold initiatives in place.”
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David Woolstenhulme, the commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, said during the ceremony that it would be a “tremendous and stress-inducing” job. But he believes Randall can use his reputation as an innovator and collaborator to succeed and noted the new president’s impressive record in the business school, which he led for the past 13 years.
There, Randall started the First Ascent Scholars Program, which provides financial aid for first-generation students and those from underrepresented communities. Under his leadership, the school also gained a national reputation — including several first place rankings in college publications.
And during the past year, he served as the economic lead on Utah’s Unified Command COVID-19 Response Team, which Cox also applauded him for Wednesday.
To a standing ovation when the presidential medallion was placed around his neck, Randall said he is excited to lead the U. and work in every part of the school, including sometimes in the basketball arena. He has a vision for the school, he said, where students are inspired and where faculty can freely innovate.
He said: “The University of Utah has a philosophy: You imagine first and then you do.”