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Search for University of Utah's next president kicks off with public meetings

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 10:26 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — What qualities should the University of Utah's next president possess? Being the president of a public university means being the servant of many masters: faculty, students, lawmakers, alumni and many other groups.

Members of the newly formed presidential search committee have begun holding a series of public hearings to gather feedback in what various groups expect in the next U. president.

President Michael Young stepped down in May to be president of the University of Washington after serving seven years in Utah. Since then, the U. has been inducted into the Pac-12 and will need a leader who can reflect the quality and leadership in sports and academics that the U. has grown to become known for nationwide and around the world, said search committee chairman Nolan Karras.

Karras said he has been involved in the search for at least six past university presidents across the state. He served as chairman of the Utah Board of Regents from 2002-06 and has served as a board member for 10 years. Karras said the upcoming series of public meetings are designed to give the selection committee a feel for what people expect in the next president.

During a meeting last week among minority students and faculty, many people said they wanted a president who would promote diversity and stand up for academic ideals among Utah's lawmakers.

"Diversity shouldn't be an add-on," said Erique Aleman Jr., a faculty member with the college of education.

Aleman said given the change in Utah's demographics, where people of Hispanic heritage are expected become a greater part of the population, a president who recognizes the strength and importance of minorities is crucial.

Susie Porter said the next president needs to have the strength to show lawmakers that the goals of the university are in the best interest of the state and that academic ideals should be defended.

A few days later, a meeting was held at the downtown law firm of Jones Waldo to see what alumni and Utah's business community wanted to see in a president.

Alumni who donate to the U., and members of the business community, said they want to see a president who can be a charismatic figure and can promote the U. to the world.

Thomas Peterson, a private financial adviser and member of the Utah Alumni Association's board of directors, recounted how he was recently in Heidelberg, Germany, when he saw a poster for a lecture by Nobel Prize-winning U. professor Dr. Mario Capecchi.

Peterson said the next president should seize upon those moments to promote the U. as a world-class institution.

"I think the local population and politicians take for granted the quality of the U. in athletics, academics and research," Peterson said.

Bob and Virginia Peterson said they have been active financial supporters of the U.'s arts and theater programs for many years. They have also been friends with five past presidents.

The couple said they would like to see a president who will stick around and not leave after five years or so. Several people agreed that they want to see a president who would take a certain pride in ownership in the U. and not see it as just a springboard to a bigger institution.

During the hearings, the issue of candidate background was discussed. Some people brought up the idea of choosing a president who has a strong background in academics, while others suggested that bringing someone in from a private corporate background could help bring in a new perspective.

Karras said when it comes down to it, everyone wants a president who can "leap tall buildings," but the reality is each candidate will have different strengths and weaknesses.

The challenge will be to find the person with the right balance of skill, background and experience, he said.

Hearings will be held through September, after which the search for candidates will begin in earnest.

Karras said the search committee should have a list of about a dozen or so candidates, which will then be given to the Utah Board of Regents. That list will not be made public. However, the final three candidates chosen by the Board of Regents will be made public before a final selection is made.

The whole process is expected to take about a year.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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