SALT LAKE CITY — In 1977, David Pershing was an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah.
On Thursday, 35 years later, Pershing will be inaugurated as the university's 15th president.
"It's a bit unusual," he said of reaching the top of a three-decade-long ladder. "That doesn't happen very often in the same institution."
Pershing officially took office in March, after serving most recently as senior vice president for academic affairs. While his appointment has so far lacked the ceremonial circumstance of an inauguration, Pershing has nonetheless overseen the university's transition into a new school year, the opening of a new residential community on campus and the implementation a greater focus on undergraduate education.
By next fall, university officials will transition to a "holistic" admissions process, Pershing said, that will go beyond grades and ACT scores in determining whether a student is accepted. Too often, he said, students have the mindset that by taking easier classes, they can secure a high grade-point average, while other students with difficult coursework see their scores fall.
"My message is clear: Take hard courses," Pershing said. "Take the course that will prepare you for the rigor of going to a research facility."
Extra-curricular activities or factors such as whether a student had a job during high school will be weighed in determining college qualification, he said.
"We will be looking at all of what the student did at high school," Pershing said. "It's all part of the process."
Barb Snider, vice president for student affairs, said the focus on undergraduate education is an important signal change to both the campus and Utah community, and several initiatives are under way to meet Pershing's goals.
The idea, Snider said, is not to neglect the University of Utah's research or graduate programs, but to increase the commitment to incoming students from their first to their last day on campus.
"At a flagship research institution, sometimes undergraduate education, while not shortchanged, is not a priority," she said. "We are striving to be the institution of choice for qualified Utah students and other qualified students who could be successful here."
Snider, whose 14 years at the University of Utah has coincided with the terms of three university presidents, said Pershing's appointment is different from past transitions because he was an internal candidate.
Other presidents, out of necessity, have had to spend some time educating themselves on the campus faculty and community, but Pershing has been able to "hit the ground running," she said.
"He's known on campus, and he is known by our donors," Snider said. "People just inherently like him and want to do good work with him. I think people are very excited about his presidency."
With that knowledge and understanding of the U. campus, Pershing has made the creation of a vibrant campus life part of his administrative goals. He said he wants each student to have the opportunity to have a learning engagement experience, either through participating in study abroad, the honors program, campus research or living in on-campus housing.
"I want you to come and live on our campus, ideally at least one year in our beautiful new residential living centers so you can have a whole campus experience," he said.
Snider said officials are working to expand the My U Signature Experience or MUSE project, which connects students with internship, leadership or scholarship opportunities, as well as other initiatives that aim to give each student a signature learning opportunity.
Officials are aware, she said, that some students will continue to not take advantage of educational opportunities, but Pershing has made it clear that the option for engaged learning should be theirs for the taking.
"We are going to have to gear up to make sure that is available to every student," Snider said.
Pershing said the holistic admissions, engagement and campus initiatives all tie back to a commitment and focus on undergraduate education. He said he hopes students and parents will come to recognize the changes being made and take their high school years more seriously as preparation for higher education.
"So often in Utah, the senior year of high school is not really used well," Pershing said. "Help your students see that it's important to take that year to take serious courses and get ready to come to a major research university."
Pershing was selected by the Utah Board of Regents from a national pool of approximately 80 applicants. That number was narrowed to just two finalists in January. He is the first internally selected president for the University of Utah in nearly 30 years.
The inauguration event, which will take place at 11 a.m. in Kingsbury Hall, is part of a weeklong celebration that included the first of a planned annual Community Engagement Day on Tuesday and will end Saturday night when the Utes face the California Golden Bears at Rice Eccles Stadium.
Contributing: Nadine Wimmer