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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Attendees applaud as David Pershing is announced as the new president of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. The State Board of Regents made the announcement after considering more than 80 potential candidates.

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has a new president.

The State Board of Regents Friday selected David W. Pershing as the 15th president of the state's flagship institution. He currently serves as the senior vice president for academic affairs at the university, a job he's held since 1998.

"I certainly never expected to be standing here today when I came to the University of Utah as an assistant professor of chemical engineering, well, a few years ago," Pershing told a crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium following the announcement. Pershing began teaching at Utah in 1977.

Cheers and applause rang out when Pershing's name was read, following a closed session by the Board of Regents who emerged to make the announcement.

"I've known him for a long time and I know he's the man for the job," said Phyllis "Teddy" Safman, Utah System of Higher Education's assistant commissioner for academic affairs. "He's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He doesn't look down on anyone. He's truly collaborative."

Following a national search that netted more than 80 candidates, regents unanimously selected Pershing over University of Kentucky Provost Kumble Subbaswamy, who was also a finalist for the position.

"In a search that brought forth such wonderful candidates, it is a great compliment to Pershing that he came from that pool of people," said David Jordan, chairman of the Board of Regents. "He is so deserving of this position."

Pershing, 63, said that as president, he plans to make undergraduate education a "top priority." Raising standards for admission at the university will help more students make it to graduation "in a timely manner," he said. 

According to a recent legislative audit, the University of Utah's six-year graduation rate of 58 percent was among the lowest of the university's peers.

"We have great research going on here. We are succeeding in commercializing our technologies. We have wonderful professional and graduate programs and we're going to support those, but we need to blend that with an outstanding undergraduate educational experience for the students of our state and beyond," he said.

Pershing said he also intends to work with other public higher education institutions in the state to reach a goal of two-thirds of the population earning some kind of secondary education certification or degree. The target comes as part of Prosperity 2020, a collaborative goal among Utah government, business and education leaders.

Jack Brittain, vice president of the university's technology venture department, said Pershing "means what he says," and is equipped to begin his new role as early as Monday.

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"He's got tremendous knowledge and the connections to get things done," Brittain said, adding that Pershing hired him as a dean at the University of Utah in 1999. Pershing had already prepared organizational discussions on strategic issues for the university in anticipation of a new president.

Pershing succeeds Michael Young, who left last year to become president of the University of Washington. 

"One of the great advantages of being an internal candidate is that I have come to know and love this institution very deeply," Pershing said. "I'm looking forward with great enthusiasm to leading this university forward."

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