Boots on the Ground
University of Utah President David W. Pershing stands in the shadow of a wind turbine, gazing up at the massive blades of the machine 300 feet above the sage and scrub brush of southern Utah’s high desert. On this fine June morning in the Escalante desert near Milford, Pershing, his two young stepdaughters—Tressa, 10, and Quincy, 13—and a coterie of administrators from the U are enjoying their tour of First Wind Milford’s power-generating facility. It’s a far cry from the marbled facade of the Park Building at the U campus, but Pershing and his fellow travelers are on a mission to familiarize themselves with the Beehive State’s distant corners, and to spread a message: The University of Utah isn’t just an urban school geared toward those who live between Ogden and Provo. It’s a school for students from Snowville to Rockville, and it’s precisely this message that Pershing has been pounding home at every opportunity during his statewide trip.
The Milford stop is one leg of an extensive odyssey across Utah dubbed “The Great Red Road Trip: Bringing the U to You.” Other jaunts took the new president to eastern and northern Utah in July, and Tooele County in August, all in an odd-looking, squat bus emblazoned with a large boot on the side.
About that boot. One thing you’ll notice about Pershing, particularly if you pass him on campus, is his choice of footwear: There’s no mistaking the distinct clop-clop of cowboy boots on concrete. Back home in his closet at the Rosenblatt House are a couple pair of sneakers, and buried back there somewhere are some hiking boots, but the cowboy boots—they’re front and center. Hence, the boot logo on the tour bus.
Pershing is by no means a cowboy, at least not in the classic sense—he was raised in the cornfields of Indiana. But he took to wearing boots in the mid-1970s while attending the University of Arizona, where he earned his doctorate in chemical engineering. His chosen footwear reflects exactly the kind of man Pershing is: an individualist who makes no apologies for who he is. That quality is one of the key factors that led the State Board of Regents to select him from among 80 applicants as the 15th president of the University in January. He began work as president in March, and will be formally inaugurated in October.
“He does not change his personality to please any one constituency; he is always himself,” says Phyllis “Teddi” Safman, assistant commissioner for academic affairs with the Utah System of Higher Education. “[During the interview process] he gave answers that were to the point, short, concise. He also clarified when he was conjecturing. More than these, he is known for working hard and getting things done without excuses.”
Pershing took the helm of the University at what may well have been one of the most crucial times since its founding. With the departure of former president Michael K. Young to the University of Washington in the nascent days of the U’s membership in the Pac-12 conference, many wondered publicly and privately what the next step would be. Young had built the U’s reputation as a business and technology powerhouse, with the U spinning off more tech companies than any other major research university in the nation. And with a jump to a high-profile athletic conference, a lot was at stake. But when the Board of Regents announced that Pershing had been selected as the U’s new leader the first from among the institution’s ranks within the last 30 years—the enthusiasm was palpable. “When President Pershing’s name was announced at the open meeting where the regents voted, there was an upwelling of excitement,” former Board of Regents Chairman David Jordan told The Salt Lake Tribune. “There was a shout of excitement that went up from the University community that was gathered there.” Those who had worked with Pershing knew the right man had been selected for the job.
Safman, who has known Pershing for nearly three decades, says he’s smart and understands issues well. “He chooses good people and then gets out of their way except to discuss his vision and elicit the visions of his staff. He brings these qualities to the job,” she says. “In addition, he does not have an arrogant bone in his body.”
Had things played out a little differently, however, Pershing might not have been president of the U—and in fact, might not have been in the halls of academe at all.
There was no doubt the young Pershing would attend college. It wasn’t even up for discussion. His father had worked his way up through the ranks of General Motors to become an electrical engineer, but never managed to get a degree. “My father wasn’t financially able to complete college because of the second World War,” Pershing says. “What that did is that it made him absolutely convinced that I was going to college. He was bound and determined from the get-go that I was going to get a degree.” First came a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Purdue, then the doctorate from Arizona, where he specialized in studying techniques to remove pollutants from industrial emissions.
In the mid-1970s, Pershing met Philip J. Smith, then a grad student at Brigham Young University and now professor of chemical engineering and director of the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy at the U. Smith was impressed from the start. “I knew he would do great things,” Smith says. “But I admit I didn’t expect it to be in the administrative area.” Pershing could have easily settled into a lucrative career at a research lab in the chemical or petroleum industry. It was typical for young chemical engineers at the time to carve out a niche in the private sector. But that’s not exactly what happened.
“At the time I was graduating [from Arizona],” says Pershing, “I just decided that I would take a look at academics, and I had offers to interview at Texas, Cal Tech, and Berkeley,” he says. “One of my professors was a very ‘pro’ academic person, and he wanted me to go interview at these very prestigious places. I came here to the U during the trip that I took to Berkeley. I ended up with a firm offer from Berkeley. But this is the sort of weird part of the story: I actually turned the University of California-Berkeley down to come to Utah.”
Pershing had discovered a passion for teaching. Standing in front of a group of students or assisting a grad student in research trumped everything else. “One of the things I loved about the U was that they not only saw me as a person who could bring in research money and build a research program,” he says, “but they also saw me as a teacher. And that wasn’t true at many of the schools I interviewed at.”
So in 1977, he found his calling—not in a lab for a chemical mega-corporation, but at the U, working his way through the ranks of the Chemical Engineering Department to become dean of the College of Engineering in 1987. Along the way, he won both the Distinguished Teaching and Distinguished Research awards, as well as the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the U’s highest honor for faculty. He became director of the University’s Center for Simulation of Accidental Fires and Explosions and eventually ascended to the rank of senior vice president for academic affairs in 1998. In September 2010, he married his wife, Sandi, the U’s assistant vice president for outreach and engagement, who is creating new undergraduate initiatives. In addition to his two stepdaughters, Pershing has a 28-year-old daughter, Nicole, who is in medical school at Duke University.
As for his career path, he says: “I had no intention of being any kind of administrator, because I love teaching.” But what he has discovered is that being an administrator gives him an effective pulpit to enact change on a much broader and grander scale. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As president, Pershing has already adopted a platform that will continue to emphasize faculty research, creative work, and technology commercialization, but also focuses the U’s strengths on the one area that has meant the most to him: the undergraduate experience. After extensive research, the U is looking to revitalize undergraduate education. “It starts from the very beginning with recruiting, clear through graduation and beyond,” says Pershing. “The University of Utah is clearly not going to be the undergraduate institution for everyone in the state—nor should we be. But for the students who are prepared to come and enjoy what we offer, I want to provide an excellent experience. And it doesn’t matter whether you grow up in St. George or Moab or Ogden. I want the University of Utah to be accessible to those students.”
Specifically, Pershing’s plan is to take a more “holistic” approach to admissions, rather than relying on a rigid standard of weighted grade-point average and ACT scores. Under the old metrics, little consideration was given to a student’s background or the classes he or she may have taken. Essentially, if their GPA and ACT gave students an index score above a certain line on a chart, they were admitted. Clear cut, but fraught with inherent problems. What if a high school didn’t even offer challenging courses for college-bound kids? The new system is geared to address just that.
“A human being will actually take the time to study what you did in high school, what courses you took. Were you working 40 hours a week in high school? Because if you were, your GPA might be low, not because you weren’t working hard, but because you were working very hard,” says Pershing. “Were you taking AP classes, or part of the International Baccalaureate program? Those kinds of things are much more important in ways than the absolute GPA.”
Getting qualified students accepted to the U is the easy part. The linchpin to Pershing’s vision is for students to complete their courses of study more quickly and efficiently. An integral part of that is encouraging more students to invest more time on campus. At present, about 13 percent of the U’s students live in residence halls, with the majority commuting to the school from around the Salt Lake Valley. But if Pershing has his way, this could change.
“If we can get the students living on campus and if we can get at least part of their work on campus, those things help the students’ probability that they will graduate,” he says. The new Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community residence hall that just opened up this fall is a first step and will provide a home to about 310 students. “Beyond that, we hope to add several more residential living areas for students,” Pershing says.
The sheer size and scope of the U has been a double-edged sword for students—yes, there are numerous opportunities in research and learning, but the quantity of choices can be dizzying. Combine that with a campus that’s just more than 4,000 acres, and it becomes all too easy to slip between the cracks—and fail to graduate. In some disciplines—chemical engineering, for example—there may be only 40 or 50 graduates each year, and faculty are likely familiar with every student in the program by the time they’ve been in school for four years. It’s a different story for students majoring in biology. “With these big, big majors,” says Pershing, “if we don’t do something special for you, you may not know any member of the faculty well by the time you graduate, particularly if you’re a bit shy, and if you’re a drive-on student.”
The goal, Pershing explains, is to redouble efforts in encouraging students to participate in at least one engaging activity during the trek from admissions to commencement. To help facilitate this, the U will begin beefing up student and academic advising resources. Pershing calls this initiative the “Presidential Promise.”
“We promise that you will have the opportunity to have at least one deep engagement experience while you’re at the University of Utah,” he explains. “That could be study abroad, it could be the Honors College, it could be LEAP [Learning, Engagement, Achievement and Progress, a program for first-year students to assist with the transition to college], it could be an undergraduate research experience, the Bennion Center, working with UNP [University Neighborhood Partners], an internship—any of those things where you get involved deeply with something. And part of the motive here is so that when you get ready to apply for graduate school or for a job, there’s somebody who can write you an in-depth recommendation.”
Pershing emphasizes that these changes are part of a larger vision. “I’m going to continue to push research excellence, and we’ll continue to push our niche strength in entrepreneurship and all the things that does for our state,” he says, “but I want to balance that with strengthening the undergraduate experience for the kids from the state of Utah. If we are to be the flagship university for the state, it is incumbent upon us to make sure our students succeed.”
Money to pay for some of these initiatives (and many more) is another issue. But Pershing seems to have a talent for bringing folks to the table when it comes time to discuss potentially sensitive issues—such as funding. “He is a consensus builder,” says Smith in the Chemical Engineering Department. “His ability to listen to people and bring them together is exceptional.”
The inauguration ceremony for President David W. Pershing will be held October 25 at 11 a.m. in Kingsbury Hall. Due to limited seating, attendance will be by invitation only. However, the ceremony will be broadcast as a live video stream from the University’s homepage at www.utah.edu. Visit the University’s Web site for additional information on this and other inauguration events.
Pershing’s summer bus trip was, in part, an effort to rally the state—and its decision makers—behind his plan, and to persuade legislators that the U’s best interests are deeply intertwined with that of the state. His schedule is now packed with meet-and-greets, speeches, and those long bus trips through the hinterlands of Utah. He’s up with the sun and frequently doesn’t get home until late into the night. Although that doesn’t leave much time for anything else, he’s adamant about carving out some time for his family. “I had a long talk with my younger daughters before I agreed to do this, and they were both very supportive,” he says. “We’re trying to keep at least one night of the week that’s a family night.”
When Pershing makes his way toward the podium during his inauguration, you can bet that his family will be his loudest supporters. And there will be a pair of handsomely polished cowboy boots poking out of his ceremonial robes.
—Jason Matthew Smith is editor of Continuum.