Tom Smart, Deseret News
Students at the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is "comparatively low" Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

On Friday the Board of Regents interviews two very distinguished finalists for the position of president of the University of Utah: David Pershing, the university's current senior vice president for academic affairs, and Kumble Subbaswamy, the provost at the University of Kentucky.

We congratulate both candidates for rising to the top in a highly competitive process. Clearly both have come to this point because of their unquestioned academic accomplishment, experience and professionalism.

The challenge for the Board of Regents will be how to identify which of these candidates will provide the pioneering leadership needed for the U. to achieve its full potential through the coming decade, a decade we believe is fraught with peril for the standard model of higher education, but ripe with opportunity for thoughtful innovators.

Consequently, the regents need to be exceedingly comfortable with how the candidates respond to the following questions, and not just in terms of their thoughts about the issues, but what in their prior experience demonstrates that they have the capacity to guide the necessary change.

What is the right funding model for the 21st century state university? Even as the economic need for post-secondary training intensifies, discretionary funding for higher education and the government sponsored research that often supplements higher education now compete against non-educational entitlement programs. How will the next president address this structural funding challenge?

What should our higher education subsidies be purchasing for society? As the Occupy Movement has highlighted, millions of unemployed college graduates and their families are wondering whether their student loans purchased a set of skills and abilities that will be an asset for life, or a worthless credential that kept some Ph.Ds employed. The U. has shown unparalleled ability to commercialize its research, but has it optimized the appropriate balance between relevant research and first-rate instruction?

The most important question, however, is what will the next president of the university do to add lasting value to the lives of the university's undergraduates? The university exists first and foremost to develop the capacity of Utah's high school graduates to become the most thoughtful and best qualified contributing citizens in the nation. We trust that the next president of the university will seek to improve the lives and abilities of the increasing number of students coming out of Utah's high schools instead of hiring recruitment specialists to help increase the selectivity of students attracted to the U. from out of state.

Of course a critical part of the full value-added proposition for U of U students is graduation within a reasonable time frame. Consequently, the next president must confront the fact that currently only about one-in-five students at the U. will graduate in four years. Two-in-five students will linger longer than six years. How will the next president lead the changes in curriculum, technology and culture required to dramatically improve rates of graduation?

Higher education has grown through an unsustainable reliance on debt and subsidies. Thought leaders in higher education must recognize that their institutions are ripe for innovative disruption and that systemic cost reducing efficiencies and technologies will overthrow current models. The Board of Regents and the next president of the U. need to demonstrate that they are prepared to lead into that uncertain future in ways that will bless the lives of Utah's students. We trust that the regents will be searching for responsive answers to these important questions.