'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.

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.

Technology, and a focus on the increasing availability of online courses, is also an important part of engaging students, Jordan said. Ten percent of total student credit hours at the university were taken online last year, giving students more flexibility in meeting a demanding course load.

"We are not your father's Oldsmobile," Pershing said, adding that he is proud of the innovative ideas the university fosters and represents.

Online courses also provide a unique incentive to the university, as without building and operations costs, they are less expensive to offer to students.

"It is true here in Utah and it's true across the country that the level of public support, in terms of state funding as a percentage of the total cost of education, is going down and we just can't continue to increase tuition to close the gap," Jordan said. "We have to find ways to be more efficient so that tuition remains affordable for our students in an environment where we don't have the level of state support that public universities once used to enjoy in this country."

Financial pressure will continue to be an issue, and Pershing is faced head-on with the need to replace critical infrastructure at the Salt Lake City campus. Electric wiring and water pipes that run under the ground between some of the campus's oldest buildings are failing, threatening, in some cases, to compromise the outcomes of millions of dollars of federally funded research that is ongoing at the school.

"It isn't that we've let it go or neglected it," Pershing said of the old pipes and hot-water heating systems. "It's just too big of a problem."

Pershing also wants to continue collaboration with other institutions in the state, including an ongoing partnership with Dixie State University in St. George.

"It is important for the president of the U. to help be a leader in the system, working with the other presidents to achieve this 2020 goal of having 66 percent of our population with some kind of post-secondary education," he said. "That's only going to happen if the system works together."

As far as the school's Utah County competitor, Pershing said the two schools can work together in harmony.

With the help of BYU professors, Pershing helped to found the Advanced Combustion Engineering Research Center in 1985. It was a cooperative effort between the two schools, funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy, to research energy technologies and comprehensive modeling.

"As a result of that collaboration, and how well I was treated by the people at BYU, I have a very fond feeling about BYU," he said. "Yes it is true that we compete on the football field, but I'm much more interested in collaborating on the academic side and we've got lots of examples of how that works."

He expects the university to continue to grow, but not in the exponential numbers it has seen in the past few years. Pershing said that as the economy recovers, students will be pulled back into the job market.

Also dependent on the economy are public and private donations to the school. While the ongoing capital campaign just recently met a $1.2 billion goal, it still has two years to garner as much funding as possible to sustain student scholarships, unmet needs and address expansion potential for the university.

"We are blessed in the state of Utah with amazing donors," he said.

Pershing moved into his new office this weekend, just as the new appointment starts to feel real for everyone involved. Official inauguration ceremonies, however, won't take place until later in the year. Plans for that have yet to be finalized.

"It's new and none of us really fully understand exactly what it means, as far as the changes in our family," Sandi Pershing said. Her two daughters seem to be as invested in the university as she and her husband are, and they're all looking forward to more interaction on campus.

"It will be different in the sense that a lot of this is a very external position, a public position," she said. Already, people have stopped the couple at the grocery store, to talk ideas and issue congratulations. "It's been exciting."

But Sandi Pershing is certain that the notoriety and responsibility won't change her husband.

"He's humble. He's patient. I've never seen him angry. I've never seen him stressed, even in this whole process, there were moments that were very challenging, but he just rises above that and I think he'll continue to be that kind of guy," she said. "He's pretty committed to being fair and collaborative and not getting stressed out, and being open to people's ideas. That's just the kind of leader he is."

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