Reactions mixed to Mark Shurtleff as U. president

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 8 2011 6:00 p.m. MST

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff talks about his future plans in the state, from his office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City June 29, 2011. Reaction to his decision to apply to be president of the University of Utah is mixed.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff still isn't talking about his decision to seek the University of Utah presidency, but reaction was mixed Tuesday to his candidacy.

"It's way outside the box that higher ed usually considers for candidates. I'm glad he's applied. I hope they take his application seriously," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the head of the Senate Education Committee.

Stephenson said Shurtleff cares more about results than image and could help shift what he has described as a focus on awarding "degrees to nowhere" at the state's flagship university that leave too many students in debt and without jobs.

"We need leadership that will change that," Stephenson said, calling for "a non-academic at the helm."

But others said Shurtleff's lack of a background in academia makes him an unlikely choice. 

"Certainly from a faculty perspective, I think it's very problematic," U. political science professor Matthew Burbank said. "He has some of the skills you would expect. He's been a public figure. He understands how to deal with the Legislature. He knows how to meet with various constituency groups."

Burbank said that's not likely to be seen as enough to run a campus. A university president, he said, also has to be seen as "the ultimate authority on campus," able to settle faculty and student issues, as well as sell the school's academic prowess to the private and public entities outside the state that award research grants.

U. dean of social and behavioral science Steve Ott served on the last presidential search committee that settled on Michael Young as a finalist. Young served seven years as the U.'s president before stepping down last May to be president of the University of Washington.

Ott said while anyone can apply for the president spot, the last search committee pretty much settled on final candidates who had experience in university administration. "When you look for a major Research One university president, what you're looking for is someone who has experience at the president's level at a lesser institution, or someone who possibly has been at a number-two level at a comparable institution," Ott said.

During the last search, Ott said even the semi-finalist list was totally made up of candidates who had served as leaders at other higher education institutions.

Ott said a president needs to have a wide variety of experience. They need to know how to deal with medical school issues and running a hospital, and know how to support research and be a charismatic fundraiser.

"The university president is not a position for just someone to step into," said Ott, who added the U. president needs to also understand how to keep the university high in national standing. "This is a very sophisticated operation. You need to keep up the reputation as a superb research institution in order to attract the big grant money for research."

Student leaders also agreed that the next U. president should have higher education leadership experience, but at least one student leader said he welcomed the news that Shurtleff had applied.

"I think it's great. I'm not necessarily for or against Shurtleff, but it can help broaden their pool of candidates," said University of Utah student-body Vice President Tobin Bennion. "One more option can't hurt."

Student-body President Meela Pack could not comment as she currently serves on the selection committee.

Bennion said with the U. now a member of the PAC-12, it will need a president who has past higher education experience. "We need someone that has experience within higher education so that it's not something that's new to them when they're representing an entire university."

Having discussed qualities, Bennion said U. student leaders believe the next president cannot be just another "politician or businessman."

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