President Young Hail to the chief: Fellow leaders sing his praises, but Young says plenty of work remains

Michael Young took office at the U in August of last year following former U president Bernie Machen’s departure to take the reins of the University of Florida on Jan. 1, 2004, and Lorris Betz’ brief stint as interim president.

Young made his return to Utah-where he graduated from Brigham Young University in 1973-after six years as dean of the College of Law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Following his selection by a presidential search committee, Young said he had some broad goals in mind to expand the U’s prowess and build its appearance in the community, but he was hesitant to impose his outsider approach on a university with such a capable staff.

Young set forth with the daunting task of lobbying funds from the Utah State Legislature, an operation that many believe became more difficult in Machen’s footsteps.

Seven months later, the U had $12.5 million in ongoing funding, $6.1 million in one-time funds for operations and equipment, $48 million for the Marriott Library renovation as well as increased staff compensation and other funds.

Missions accomplished

Young attributes much of the success at the Legislature to his fellow leaders and the student ambassadors.

“I thought we had very good representatives from the university on the Hill in Fred Esplin, Nancy Lyon, Kim Wirthlin, Dave Pershing, Lorris Betz,” Young said. “We had a wonderful group of students as presidential ambassadors who volunteered to go up and represent the university, explain the issues and so forth…I think things were better than I had been led to believe they would with the Legislature.”

In addition to obtaining legislative funding, Young said he has been pleased with the status of several other goals.

One of which was reaffirming the connection of the U to the community.

“We are a terrific university, much better than you would expect in a state of two-and-a-half million,” he said. “Every time I look at different parts of the university, I’m surprised at how extraordinary it is. There are large pockets of world class work going on here in the sciences, the health sciences, the engineering, in the humanities, in the social sciences, in the fine arts, just place after place it’s a world class university.”

He said the state is committed to education, which has benefited the U and, in turn, the community has been improved because of the U.

“We have some of the best health care in the United States, a remarkably high-quality, low-cost educational system delivered very efficiently for fewer dollars than is done almost anywhere else in the United States,” Young said. “We have fine arts, we have culture, we have music here in this state in a way that is really unique in the United States. And I think that’s in some large measure because you have a terrific university.”

He said one of his main roles has been to remind people about those mutual benefits and get the message across to the Legislature.

Another part of that challenge was passing along the message that the state would benefit if the U flourished as an engine for economic growth.

“The state needs high-paying jobs, high-paying jobs are going to come based on the knowledge-economy and we’re the only game in town,” Young said. “We already have a powerful, overwhelming economic effect, in any event we wanted to show we’d do even more and we were committed to do even more.”

Jack Brittain, dean of the College of Business, became vice president of venture technology development to further this role of the U.

“There was a modest, very helpful, but modest, amount of money, put into that as a good-faith sign on the part of the state,” Young said. “We were really pleased with that and look forward to working more closely with the chamber and the Legislature next year on even a collaborated and expanded version of that.”

Role of religion

Upon Young’s entrance, there was much talk regarding his LDS background and speculation regarding whether that would affect the way he ran the U.

Young said he believes religion is an important element in shaping cultures and societies as well as his personal conduct. However, with his extensive law background and participation on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he understands the difference between religion in its broad sense and promoting particular denominations.

“I am a very big believer in making this a place where everyone feels comfortable regardless of their religious belief or lack of religious belief,” Young said. “I think things like the Newman Center, Hillel and the LDS Institute are terrific for what they provide…They are not state-funded and that’s the way it should be.”

He called religion a powerful source in society, saying to understand the world without religion is similar to understanding the world without understanding the role of gender.

“Religion is as legitimate and important in lobbying analytical consideration as is gender and ethnicity and all these other things that we realize move and shape and are social, political and economic forces,” Young said. “To lose the notion of that as one of the things that informs and shapes and guides your culture would be as crazy as ignoring the fact that there have been important philosophers and scientists and so forth that have as well.”

Next steps

Young said he is satisfied with his first steps, saying he met many of his goals in his first months, but he added there is more work to be done.

He said in coming months he wants to get a better sense of the U and hear what people think the next steps should be in order to move the U to the next level.

He said interdisciplinary work is one area on which he will focus.

“A lot of [interdisciplinary work] goes on and I think we can do even more,” Young said. “In other words, taking some areas of real strength and sort of marrying two parts of the university to build on those strengths is going to become a really important area.”

He cited work in which fine arts linked with humanities including English and theater, performing arts and communication, dance and communication and even film and dance.

The Academic Senate recently announced the president’s initiative to implement an international requirement to students’ general education requirements. Young said the requirement is another of his goals, which he hopes will lead to a more complete education for U students.

The president’s plans are largely based on his political past, during which he has dealt with several international dignitaries including the Dalai Lama, former President George H. W. Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker, among others.

His office is peppered with photos of of himself shaking hands with several of these figures, but the photo Young said he values most is that of himself with Baker. From 1989 to 1991, Young served as Baker’s mouthpiece during his role as Deputy Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State.

Young was also Ambassador for Trade and Environmental Affairs and Deputy Under Secretary for Economic and Agricultural Affairs. In 1996, he served as Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on Transfers of Iranian Arms to Bosnian Muslims.

“I think we have a lot more opportunity in the international area,” Young said. “Students who move on to the next generation are going to have to be sophisticated on international matters, but it isn’t terribly well coordinated or conceptualized here at the university, and I think we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about that. It is not accidental that part of the theme for inauguration is ‘Gateway to the World.’ That’s not a casual phrase.”

Young said he is also working toward breaking the U free of the traditional commuter campus characterization.

“We’re looking for ways to expand the opportunities for students to spend more time on campus doing more interesting and engaging things,” Young said. “I u
nderstand the dynamic of a commuter campus and there is always the possibility in the context of the commuter campus that you lose something valuable about the educational experience, which is an opportunity for students to interact with each other.”

Young said he will try to collaborate and find ways to allow students more opportunities to interact with each other on a broader range of issues and wider contexts so they can get the most possible out of their educational experience.

How will he do it?

Young, who has touted a collaborative approach to his leadership since his inception as U president, said the best way to achieve his goals is to rely on his staff.

“The biggest answer is to turn the terrific people here at the university loose,” Young said. “My goal is to help develop these collective visions of what we want to do and then turn these really great people loose. One of my jobs will be to get the resources to do what they really want to do and are able to do.”

He said he realizes a lot of the responsibility rightly lies on his shoulders, but for ideas and execution, he plans to depend on his fellow leaders.

“We’ve got terrific people here at the university,” Young said.

“I can put my feet up and read a book while they work,” he joked.

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