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Michael Brandy, Deseret News archives
Raymond Tymas-Jones and James Jardine (right) unveil the portrait of President Michael Young at the University of Utah. June 9, 2008.

Leaning back in his red armchair, Michael K. Young is the picture of a university president who has been in one place long enough to get comfortable.

There along his shelf are the signed footballs, representing the school's Bowl Championship Series victories. On the walls hang bright-red school paraphernalia. His desk is scattered with tokens of his seven-year tenure.

As comfortable as Young is at the University of Utah, he's leaving it all behind. Soon, as the new president of the University of Washington, Young will be in a different state, surrounded by different school colors, trying to find the same level of comfort.

After all, the recently remarried Young already faces skepticism of his Mormon faith. His religious affiliation triggered recent debate on The Seattle Times' website. One commenter wrote, "Any leader who professes a strong belief in religious hocus-pocus, dreamed up by those who thought the earth was flat, and was the center of the universe, (is) not fit to (lead)." Others were more positive toward his faith, "I have many Mormon friends and am blessed I do."

Along with Gordon Gee, the president of the Ohio State University, and Veldon Lane Rawlins, the president of the University of North Texas and former president of Washington State University, Young will be one of three Mormon academics who run public universities outside Utah.

Rawlins, a three-time university president, says a little religious prejudice is nothing new. "There have been a couple of institutions in my lifetime that have actually expressed reservations about hiring me because I was a Mormon. I'm pretty sure there was an offer I didn't get because of that," Rawlins said. Despite this, Rawlins believes the principles he learned in church were tremendous assets throughout his career in academic administration.

Young concurred, adding that his religion is a fundamental part of who he is.

And that's what some are leery of, claiming that Young's faith and ties to the Bush administration will alienate UW's Seattle base.

Another commenter on The Seattle Times' website even wrote, "All Mormons support bigotry. Michael Young is a Mormon. So, Michael Young supports bigotry."

Rawlins rebutted this logic. "After all, the greatest commandment is very closely related to judge not," Rawlins said. "When you're the president of a large public institution, it is not your job to determine the values and lifestyles of everyone there."

Young agreed and said that his membership in the LDS Church has taught him to embrace diversity, "Not only accepting, but reveling in our differences is a profound part of our religion,"

It has also been a profound part of Young's career. He spent some 25 years of his life studying religious freedom issues, including a six-year stint as commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. All of these experiences, secular and spiritual, have planted within Young a deep passion for championing diversity.

Yet, that's not all Young has learned from his faith.

"There are also very profound dimensions of my religion that push me to try to help others, and what I mean by that in the university setting is create environments where people can really realize their full potential," he said.

Pausing, he added, "That's what great universities do, help other people."

It's a lesson Young learned when he was young. His father taught him that creating jobs and fostering economic development were important ways of helping people.

"I used to watch my father who owned a supermarket and it always struck me that he performed a public service. We always think of a public service as doing something charitable for free, and that is good, but what my father did was create a business that hired people, put food on peoples' tables and performed a really valuable service to the community," Young said. Though different, Young believes universities can do the same.

These lessons inspired Young to turn Utah into a top school for licensing revenue and patent activity, tying MIT in 2008 and beating Harvard, in the creation of new companies (20).

Yet, according to Wayne Watkins, the past president of the University Economic Development Association, "university spinoff companies are just one of several important factors in how universities create wealth and jobs in a community." Watkins indicated that perhaps more important than creating spinoffs at Washington, will be Young's ability to break down the barriers between higher education and the business community.

"Bridging the boundaries between the institution and the community, including business and governmental institutions, will be critical to driving innovation and economic development in Washington."

But, Washington shouldn't be worried, Watkins went on to praise Young's track record of breaking down barriers at Utah, having engineering, technology, business, and law work collaboratively to help drive innovation.

Young made it clear he plans to do the same in Washington by reinforcing bridges between Seattle-based businesses and university research, "Seattle sits in a very high tech community with biotechnology and so forth. Deepening the connections and linkages there could be very exciting." He continued, "Particularly now in academic institutions the need for collaborative work is just profound."

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"Michael Young is a proven leader and he will take the assets and resources in Washington's unique community and realign them in ways that benefit their community, just as he did in Salt Lake City," said Watkins.

Like Watkins, Rawlins expressed confidence in Young's abilities. Rawlins, who left the state in 2009, warned, "Washington is going through some very tough times, and it will take a very skilled administrator." But he added optimistically, "Young will do a terrific job."

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com