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

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Pershing's oldest daughter, Nicole, is studying cell biology at Duke University's medical school. The two girls at home, Quincy and Tressa Parkes, enjoy dancing and their schoolwork as students at the Salt Lake Arts Academy.

The family has no plans to leave Utah any time soon. They've learned to love the University of Utah and its surrounding community, as well as the ample hiking and exploration opportunities that exist in the nearby mountains. They'll be moving into the president's home this summer.

But for now, Pershing is focusing his energy on building up and continuing the momentum the school has had for more than 162 years. He said he plans to enhance undergraduate education programs, making sure "we are giving them an excellent experience," he said, in addition to bringing in students who are "prepared to come to the university and who will succeed here ultimately."

Being a new addition to the Pac-12 has the Utes on their toes, but Pershing believes the school wouldn't have been invited if its academics weren't already stellar. He's excited to forge new relationships and collaborate with leaders of the other conference schools.

"These are institutions that are focused on academics — Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, and UCLA — they're about academics first and that is certainly true with us as well," Pershing said. "What the Pac-12 is about, is getting 8,000 athletes educated. Only a tiny fraction of them will ever go on to play professional sports of any kind. So, even on the athletic side, we're about getting them educated."

Pershing will implement plans set in motion about a year ago at the university, progressively tightening admission requirements for incoming freshmen. The move aims to entice students to use all four high school years to prepare for a university education.

The university will continue its focus to largely serve local students, Pershing said, as more than 75 percent of its students come from the state of Utah. And while admission standards may get tighter, a quota or cap does not exist at the school, thereby allowing anyone who qualifies an opportunity for acceptance.

Administrators are also in the process of redesigning general education qualifications at the University. The idea is to provide its more than 31,000 students with what they need most to succeed — not just courses that might not count toward a degree, Pershing said.

All of the above will hopefully lead to increased graduation rates, he said.

"We want to be sure that we admit students who are prepared to come to the University of Utah and work with them a lot harder to make sure they have the support they need to graduate in a timely way," he said.

In addition to upping the lagging graduation rate, which hovers around 58 percent and is one of the lowest in the state, Jordan said the regents expect Pershing, and all presidents at Utah's other public colleges and universities, to increase efficiency.

Graduation rates at all Utah schools reflect a cultural issue in the state, in that many students get married and have children at young ages, as well as leaving school for two years to serve LDS missions. The University of Utah is also predominantly a commuter campus, signalling that many students are also holding down jobs and families outside of their schoolwork.

Pershing said working through school often lengthens the time of enrollment, regardless of the institution.

"Getting married and perhaps having a first child tends to slow people down in terms of their times to completion, it's a phenomenon of the culture in which we live," Jordan said. "But, we need to do a better job of helping people who are in those life situations, to complete their schooling as soon as possible, and independent of those cultural factors, we need to do a better job of lifting the completion rate at the University of Utah."

Jordan said additional housing is in the works to be added on campus, making it more of a residential campus, which could help to engage even more students. Better preparation, though, and extra focus from faculty and administrators, he said, will help students know what is expected of them.

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