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David Pershing: A pioneering perspective from campus

By David Pershing

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 24 2014 3:10 p.m. MDT

A group of Mormon pioneers is shown at South Pass, Wyoming, about 1859.

Charles Roscoe Savage, Courtesy BYU

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This week we celebrate the arrival 167 years ago of Brigham Young and the vanguard of Mormon pioneers in the Great Basin. They immediately set about planting crops and creating a new city in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. Three years later they had the remarkable foresight to found the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), which has endured and grown as the state’s flagship institution of higher education. The U is deeply honored to have educated Mormon leaders past and present.

With the approach of Pioneer Day, I like so many other Utahns have been reflecting on the pioneering spirit that sustained those settlers on their arduous journey west and enabled them to carve out a home on the frontier. I can only imagine how pleased they would be to see the mighty oak that has grown from the small acorn they planted in 1847. We have come a long way from the early days of living in dugouts and hand-hewn log cabins. Today Utah is consistently ranked as the best state for business by Forbes.

Utah is now home to a world-class health care system, including the renowned Huntsman Cancer Institute, with cutting-edge research in human genetics and biology, and home to Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi. Salt Lake City is alive with entrepreneurship, artistic and cultural achievement.

Today, Utah’s pioneers continue to open fresh territory in business, medicine, the humanities and the arts. Just as pioneers of old braved the unknown to improve their lives, today’s pioneers do so to improve the lives of others.

Utah is ranked fourth in business innovation and entrepreneurship by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, evidence that our pioneering spirit at the David Eccles School of Business is alive and thriving. Myriad Genetics, BioFire Diagnostics and ARUP started at the University of Utah, and entrepreneurs John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems, and Edwin Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, found their pioneering vision here as well.

As president of the University of Utah I am privileged to see the pioneering spirit at work every day in every field of study. Bioengineering students are creating a catheter using a bacteria-killing light that will transform the health care technology market. Students in the entertainment arts and engineering program are developing video games to help children with autism understand social cues. And researchers in social work have begun a three-year pilot program that provides support, information and cultural liaison services to pregnant African refugee women in Salt Lake City.

Utah pioneers accomplished what they did through cooperative industry hence our state’s beehive seal and I see that spirit of collaboration alive and well on campus. Earlier this year, we celebrated the opening of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex, an interdisciplinary facility representing the hard work and generosity of many. Its namesake founded Art Works for Kids, which brought music, dance, theater and visual arts into Utah elementary schools statewide. The integrative work of the College of Education and the College of Fine Arts, now housed under one roof, will foster ongoing development of teaching models in which the arts are used to teach multiple subjects.

As we celebrate the legacy we have been given, we recognize all those who made our current successes possible: the pioneers who sought sanctuary here; the native peoples who settled here first, who continue to enrich our culture and economy, and from whom our state derives its name; and all the newcomers who are drawn here by the opportunities and welcoming environment Utah offers.

Although I am an adopted, not a native, son I count myself fortunate to have been entrusted with the great university which has grown from that early pioneer vision of what could be if we all worked together for the common good. The pioneering spirit is alive and well in Utah, and we are all the better for it.

David W. Pershing is the president of the University of Utah.

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