'Family man' David Pershing begins job as 15th president of the University of Utah

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 11:37 p.m. MDT

David Pershing is the first U. president to be hired internally in nearly 30 years. He officially starts his new job Monday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In addition to deciphering budgets, recruiting top-notch faculty and students, tightening admission standards, seeking out donors and increasing graduation numbers, the newest University of Utah president can also be found crunching numbers with his 10-year-old daughter at home.

David Pershing said he is a family man at heart. It's perhaps the only thing he's unwilling to give up to become the top man on campus.

"It's one of the things I love most about Utah, the emphasis on family and kids," he said. The 63-year-old father of a 27-year-old daughter and two stepdaughters, ages 10 and 12, said he wants to continue a tradition of world travel with his wife and daughters, even as he directs the state's flagship institution.

Patagonia is at the top of Pershing's bucket list, but New Zealand remains one of his favorites.

"In one little country, you've sort of got everything. In the north, you have islands, in the south, there are big, beautiful mountains," he said. The idea is much like the U. campus, which spans 1,534 acres and contains a little bit of everything.

And while he enjoys his expanded view of the world and a variety of cultures, Pershing is quite happy involving himself in research and getting to know the people he now leads.

Pershing officially takes office today, as the school's 15th president and the first selected internally in nearly 30 years. The learning curve might not be that large; Pershing's been a fixture at the university for 35 years, beginning in 1977 as an assistant professor and "backing into a variety of administrative jobs," as he put it.

"He's able to hit the ground running," said the chairman of the State Board of Regents, David Jordan. The regents chose Pershing out of a national pool of approximately 80 applicants that was narrowed to just two finalists in January. His experience and knowledge of the institution played in his favor during the selection process, Jordan said.

"He also brings a demonstrated skill as someone who can navigate the internal politics of an institution. He's a good diplomat. He knows how to help faculty and administrators and students work in a cooperative way."

Jordan said that in previous capacities, Pershing has shown an ability to work with lawmakers, who ultimately dole out the cash that largely supports the institution. He's also successfully appealed to donors, a requirement for any college or university president.

And he's got a wall of support behind him.

"When President Pershing's name was announced at the open meeting where the regents voted, there was an upwelling of excitement," Jordan said. "There was a shout of excitement that went up from the university community that was gathered there."

Pershing is also sustained by his wife, Sandi Pershing, who also works at the university, as the assistant vice president for outreach and engagement. The two were set up by colleagues years after he divorced his first wife, after nearly 27 years of marriage.

Sandi Pershing said it only took one date, and they've been together ever since. They were married in September 2010.

"I knew he was exceptional," she said. "He is one of the most approachable, unpretentious, salt of the earth, honest, hardworking guys you will ever meet."

Perhaps his work ethic was learned in the corn fields of Indiana, where Pershing was born and raised.

"He's a tractor-driving, cowboy-boot-wearing, salt of the earth guy," Sandi Pershing said. Other than a pair of tennis shoes and hiking boots, she said the new university chief owns boots in just about every color. "It's what he wears every single day."

He's outnumbered by women at home. But Pershing's wife said he handles it well. "He's wonderful with girls. He's been terrific with all of them." Not to mention his dog, Stetson.

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