Magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School.
Professor at Columbia University’s School of Law.
Dean of the George Washington University Law School.
Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State.
“My career,” says Michael K. Young, the University of Utah’s new president, “is happily random and chaotic.”
Well, what’s a little modesty among overachievers?
Taking the helm as the 14th president of the U’s 28,000-student, 1,400-acre campus is only the latest random act of leadership by Young, whose extensive curriculum vita demonstrates the energy, shrewd judgment, and academic commitment colleagues attribute to him—and which he now brings to the state’s flagship institution.
“There must be more than 24 hours in his day,” says Young’s former colleague Roger Trangsrud, senior associate dean at the George Washington University Law School. “Someone said once that he must write with both hands.”
That energy reveals itself
through a quick mind, an expansive vision, a thoughtful, sometimes bemused
demeanor—and what he calls a “ruthless” focus on getting
The Board of Regents thought so, too. After a search committee narrowed the applicant field from 147 to three, the Regents unanimously selected Young on April 29. “We were impressed that he provides a unique combination of experiences and attributes: strong in academia, extraordinary experience at the federal level, and an understanding of and commitment to Utah,” says Nolan Karras MBA’70, Regents chair. “I have no doubt he’ll be an excellent president.”
“This is a great coup,” adds Sen. Bob Bennett BS’47. “My only fear is that keeping Michael Young at the U might turn out to be a problem, as other universities will surely try to hire him away.”
Since his graduation from Brigham Young University in 1973, Young—who likes to be called “Mike”—has been immersed in academic life on the East Coast. A former law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and a legal scholar on Japanese regulatory procedures, Young says, “I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother was very feisty and loved to argue. Robust argument was a parlor sport when I was growing up.”
An interest in human rights accompanied a love for the law. At Columbia, he was Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law and co-director of the Program on Religion, Human Rights and Religious Freedom. “My colleague at Columbia, Lou Henkin, is an observant Jew and I’m an observant Mormon,” he says. “In the course of our conversations, we both agreed that there is not enough emphasis on religious freedom in the human rights field.” The two received a grant from the Pew Foundation and began an international internship program at Columbia. Later, Young was asked to join the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and has served two terms as chair of the commission.
That service was only one of several government posts Young has held. He was counsel to the Select Subcommittee on Transfers of Iranian Arms to Bosnian Muslims of the U.S. House of Representatives; and, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, he was Ambassador for Trade and Environmental affairs, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, and Deputy Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State.
It’s no wonder, then, that the opening of the dean position at the George Washington University (GW) Law School was intriguing to Young. “GW has a strong program in international law, and it’s close to the state department, so it was an attractive choice for him,” notes Trangsrud.
For the U of U employees speculating about Young’s leadership style, his six years as dean at GW provide some clues. “He’s a whirlwind of energy,” says Scott Mory, executive director of alumni programs at GW and a graduate of the GW law school. “He’s skilled at coming in, assessing a situation, and building allies. He’s a conscientious and thoughtful listener, a no-nonsense administrator, and a brilliant educator. He makes people keep up with him through a sensitive nudging to improvement.”
Mory credits Young with several accomplishments: the physical expansion of GW’s law school, in an area where space is at a premium; the thawing of the fractious relations that had existed between the school and its central administration; and raising the prominence of the law school’s academic program. “He’ll be a tremendous asset to the U,” Mory says. “He’s a genuine person, very caring.”
Trangsrud also cites the significance of the physical expansion, and adds that Young increased support for faculty scholarship, improved the technology available to students, oversaw an increase in the alumni donor base and the size of gifts, and increased diversity, both among students and administrative leadership. As Trangsrud says, “We’re distraught that he’s leaving. We’d have kidnapped his dog if we thought it’d keep him here.”
“I cannot overstress the high level of respect he commands in the Washington, D.C. area, and not just as dean of the GW law school,” says Bennett. “When he was appointed as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he came to the attention of a wide variety of people, including the senate majority leader, who personally endorsed his reappointment.
“He’s seen as a man of scholarship, integrity, fairness, and, perhaps most important, simply good common sense,” he adds.
Young himself wryly describes his leadership style as “very collaborative, born out of a substantial amount of cowardice. I surround myself with people smarter than myself, and we work together to develop shared visions. Then I turn them loose and throw resources at them. So I think it’s some combination of cowardice and laziness.”
Self-deprecation aside, Young believes that “you have to have a clear-eyed sense of the core mission”—something he says the U has accomplished. “My sense is that this university has been enormously well led,” he says. “The faculty is very strong and increasingly recognized. So this is not a turnaround operation.”
Still, he has specific ideas about how the U can move forward. “I’d like to see the University become part of the Association of American Universities,” he says. “I want to project the University onto the national stage and expand the base of alumni support. I’d like to increase student interaction, and the physical plant may be involved in that.
“We’re going to make the U a household word,” he adds. “Part of that is a communication issue, but it’s also a matter of helping professors generate the resources they need to take it to the next level. Finding those resources is my job. It’s wonderful to see the increase in interdisciplinary work and the internationalizing of that work. We have an underexploitation of faculty in that area.”
In addition, he says, “Diversity is critical. Students teach each other, so they need other students and professors with different mindsets and backgrounds. You don’t want to force them to believe anything, but you do want to expand their analytical capacity.”
Providing the right learning atmosphere for such analytical expansion is crucial, and Young cites it when speaking of the recent controversy about the University’s policy not to allow guns on campus—a controversy he calls “a huge diversion, more about power than guns. I am committed to an intellectually and physically safe environment, free from intimidation,” he says. “I can’t believe having guns on campus is a good idea.”
Young does believe that any vision of the University has to be informed by a reconsideration of national higher-education issues. As an example, he mentions distance education, noting, succinctly, “We haven’t got it right.” Rather than addressing the pedagogical shift from books to the Internet as sources of knowledge, he says, we’ve been distracted by minor issues, such as how to get information on CDs. “Students are getting smarter,” he says, “but they’re not writing as well.” Likewise, changing demographics have caused another tectonic shift. “We’re shoehorning a huge segment of the population into college,” Young says. “There’s a much broader range of things that colleges are expected to do. There’s a mission creep; where a junior college might once have focused on skills training, now some think of themselves as having a similar mission as Harvard.”
Given his ambitions for the U, and for higher education, it’s not surprising that Young doesn’t foresee a short tenure as president. “I can’t imagine having an impact on a large institution in less than a decade,” he says, adding, with a smile, “Of course, maybe people won’t like me, or maybe I won’t like them.” He emphasizes that this job “is not a stepping stone. I plan to be a deeply immersed part of the U. You have to have a passion for the place, and this is a community we love. Utah is a special state to us.”
Indeed, Suzan Young is originally from Orem, and the couple met while attending BYU. “He dated my roommate,” she says. “On their second date, she got a phone call and asked me to talk with him while she was on the phone. We ended up chatting for about two hours.” They began dating her freshman year and were married in 1972.
The couple and their three children—Stewart, a law clerk in Las Vegas; Kathryn, a May 2004 graduate of the Air Force Academy, now married and stationed at Scott Air Force Base; and Andrew, a senior at GW—have taken annual ski vacations in Utah. “We’ve had a place at Deer Valley for five years,” Suzan says. “Mike loves to hang out with the kids.” (In fact, in describing himself as a father, he says, “Sue would say I never grew up.”)
Like her husband, Suzan plans to be deeply involved in the University. And, as befits someone who just last year added a nursing degree to her original clothing and textiles degree from BYU, she is passionate about education for women. “I really want to encourage them to stay in school and finish their degrees,” she says. “Don’t put your husband through first and then think you’re going to finish later. Both of you can get your degrees.” In addition, she’d like to maintain her interest in health care. “I’d like to keep my skills up, maybe even on a volunteer basis,” she says.
And yes, the Youngs are Mormon—a fact the local press has repeatedly noted. Of the local attention on their faith, Mike Young says, “I look at it with detached bemusement. I’m a committed, active, practicing member of the LDS Church. It shapes me; it tugs at me. But [the attention] is very strange in that I’ve been 30 years out of Utah at some high-level university and government posts, and it’s never been an issue.”
Still, he says, “I do understand that in a place where there’s a dominant religion, it’s in the air. But what’s hard for people on both sides to understand is that there’s very little that is unique about this debate. It goes on around the world: in India, Ukraine, Belarus. This is what I’ve spent the last five years of my life doing. Every religion that is a majority in one place is a minority somewhere else. I understand how both the majority and the minority feel. You have to talk to both sides, and teach them to be engines of tolerance—not just tolerant.”
That global vision—along with diplomatic skills honed in Washington, D.C.—should serve Young well in his work with the University’s, and Utah’s, constituencies, including the state legislature. In that, he sees alumni as his best allies.
“Alumni understand better than anyone that the world can be a better place and that higher education is a powerful vehicle to making that happen,” he says. “As both a policy matter and a practical realty, universities are engines for social improvement.”
—Theresa Desmond is editor of Continuum.