SALT LAKE CITY — David Pershing was 28 years old in 1976 when he first laid eyes on the university perched in the foothills above Salt Lake City. Armed with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering recently earned from the University of Arizona, he arrived on the campus for a practice interview.
The idea came from professor Jost Wendt, Pershing’s faculty adviser at Arizona, who, when he learned his star student had been invited by the University of California-Berkeley and Caltech for job interviews, suggested he shouldn’t go in cold to those prestigious universities. First, he ought to warm up someplace that was interesting to him. Pick another school where he could simulate the real thing.
Pershing picked the University of Utah.
He figured his stay would last overnight.
That was 40 years ago.
Today, not only is David W. Pershing running the University of Utah — this year is his fifth school year as the university’s president after taking over from Michael Young in 2012 — but Professor Wendt is at the U. too. He joined the chemical engineering faculty as Presidential Professor in 2005 — at which point his Arizona protégé was the practice school’s senior vice president for academic affairs.
On a recent Monday morning in his office on President’s Circle, Pershing talked with the Deseret News about the unexpected accident that brought him to campus, the reasons he’s stayed, and why he never intends to leave.
DN: Thank you for your time today. So, a funny thing happened to you on your way to Berkeley?
DP: (Laughs) Berkeley certainly was the original plan. After I applied to Utah and came here for my interview, I went to Berkeley, interviewed there, and wound up getting faculty offers from both schools. I thought I’d choose Berkeley, it’s such a prestigious institution, but when I weighed everything I found I just liked Utah a whole lot better. I liked the faculty, I liked the city, I liked everything about it. I was interviewed by J.D. Seader, the chairman of the chemical engineering department, who was very dynamic, and who convinced me, correctly I would say, that I could come to Utah and build an environmental combustion program the way I wanted to build it. It was very much like what Mario (Capecchi, the U. of U.’s Nobel Prize-winning geneticist) says when he talks about being able to come here and do things his way. It was also very appealing that here I could afford a beautiful home and in California all I could afford was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house built in the 1940s that didn’t have central heating.
DN: What about the school’s stature in the 1970s? How appealing was that?
DP: The U.’s reputation was good and climbing, is what I would say. It was clear we were on the rise. David Gardner was president then and doing some very progressive things.
DN: You came as a professor in chemical engineering. What was it that drew you to engineering?
DP: My dad, Walter, wanted to be an engineer but was only able to go to college for one year before he ran out of money — this was after the Depression — and then went to work for General Motors in Indiana. He wanted me to go to college and become an engineer and that’s what I did. I grew up in Anderson, a suburb about 40 miles north of Indianapolis. I went to the state engineering school (Purdue University) for my bachelor’s degree, then spent three years as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service to fulfill my military obligation during the Vietnam War years. I was assigned to work in research at the Environmental Protection Agency when it first got started. My work was on how to utilize coal and minimize the pollutant emissions. After that I went to the University of Arizona for my Ph.D. When I graduated, I had a lot of people interested in me because of my research.
DN: Was your plan always to work in academia?
DP: Actually, I thought I’d stay at a university for a few years and then go work for an oil company.
DN: Becoming president of the university wasn’t on your long-range radar?
DP: I definitely never aspired to be president, or even in administration. My whole career has kind of been doing things I never planned to do. When they first asked me about becoming dean of engineering, I said I wasn’t interested, but I would come and talk to the search committee about what they ought to be looking for. I made my presentation, not about me but about what the college needed, and they said, yes, you’re right, this is what the college needs and it needs you to run it. So that’s how I became dean of engineering. The way I got to be senior vice president, and then president, was very similar.
DN: How would you describe your management style?
DP: I try to be very collaborative. I try to work closely with the senior leaders of the university, the deans and the vice presidents, and listen to them, and listen to the faculty and their wants. I want people who work here, and the students who come here, to feel comfortable.
DN: Any role models who shaped you?
DP: Certainly both (former presidents) Chase Peterson and David Gardner helped a great deal in my development. David continues to be very helpful to me, as was Chase before his death. David Gardner was particularly good at working with the Legislature. That’s so important for a state university, so I’ve tried to emulate him in that respect.
DN: You had to be at your collaborative best last winter when your basketball coach canceled a game against BYU and the Legislature responded by deciding to audit your budget. How much did the president’s office have to do with getting the Utah-BYU game back on the schedule, and did the intensity of the reaction surprise you?
DP: I was certainly surprised by the intensity of the feelings. It’s true that there are legislators who are very interested in sports, and overall I think that’s a good thing. Yes, the president’s office was involved in resolving that. I try not to tell the coaches what to do, but I worked with the coach, with Larry (Krystkowiak), and with Chris (Hill), the A.D., and also with Kevin Worthen, the president at BYU, and together we all made it come back together. Hopefully, we have gotten this to a place that is pleasing to everyone involved, that’s what I hope.
DN: Was that the biggest controversy you’ve had to deal with as president?
DP: Well, it was certainly up there. But the biggest and most constant challenge I face is keeping tuition as low as I can. We know that more than half of our students are working more than 20 hours a week and some are working 35 and 40 hours a week and trying to get their degree. There’s a real need to keep a university education affordable.
DN: When you took office you specified three major goals: 1, improve the undergraduate experience; 2, raise the bar in admission standards; and 3, overhaul the aging infrastructure. How do you assess your progress at realizing those objectives?
DP: We certainly have focused hard on the undergraduate students’ experience. In my inaugural address, I said we are going to commit to offer to every student the opportunity for a deep engagement experience. Don’t just come here, go to class, and go away. We don’t want that. You’re not going to really get the benefit of the University of Utah if that’s all you do. We just opened this fall the new Lassonde Studios, this wonderful residential living area, 412 students living in these beautiful towers, and the main floor is what we call the Neeleman Hangar, which is the maker space, full of computers and all kinds of machines and tools for students who want to create something — it can be something artistic, it can be something scientific, it can be anything they can imagine. We want creative students there, and it’s working. In addition to the Lassonde Studios, we’ve opened the Marriott Honors Residential Community, and I have a dream of building a third tower. Another thing we’re doing is offering all sorts of different opportunities, from internships, to the honors program, to more learning abroad programs. We now have a campus in Korea. There are all kinds of things we’re trying to do.
As for admissions, this year we admitted the biggest class and the academically strongest class in the history of the university. The average GPA coming into the university now is 3.6. It’s a very strong class, and a diverse class. We’ve gone to what we call holistic admissions. The idea there is we don’t just look at grades and test scores. We look at what you took in high school. Did you take all of the easiest classes and get really good grades, or did you take calculus and science and honors English and didn’t get quite as good of grades but you took the more challenging classes? Before it was a simple mathematical look at your GPA and your ACT score. You either got in or you didn’t. Now we look at those scores but we also look at what else you did. The bar hasn’t been raised, per se, it’s just gone up because of the students we’re attracting. There is no absolute minimum. For example, maybe you’re a trombone player and that’s really your passion and you didn’t concentrate maybe as much as you should have on some of your academic classes, but if you are spectacular at playing the trombone this may be the right university for you.
When I came in as president, I said our infrastructure was a lot like a Third World country, and I think that was a pretty fair statement. We were having rolling power outages and all kinds of plumbing problems. Thanks to the Legislature, we have rebuilt a lot of our buildings and replaced the underground piping and electricity. It’s not a glamorous project but a critical project. We haven’t got it quite done, but we’re almost there.
DN: You took over as president the year after Utah joined the Pac-12 athletic conference. Has that been a good thing or bad thing, in your view?
DP: There’s no question that it’s absolutely an asset. On the academic side it has really changed our peer group and how people regard us. Our ability to recruit both students and faculty has gone up. Even faculty who don’t really care so much about sports are thrilled to be associated with UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, USC, Washington and the rest. If I could wave a magic wand, I would still pick the Pac-12 as the league for us, because it’s the strongest academically of the big leagues. Sports are very important, no question about it, but my job is to build a great educational facility for the state and offer a great education. Our affiliation with the Pac-12 helps us achieve that.
DN: Does it bug you that the football coach makes more money than you do?
DP: (Laughs) I think that’s just fine. I do not have the skills to be the football coach. In fact, if you do a list of the salaries within the university, I’m way down the list. Not only am I behind several of the coaches, I’m behind the neurosurgeons and lots of the people on the medical side. But that’s OK, because we have to pay salaries that are competitive in the discipline for whatever it is. It’s all relative. I didn’t take this job because of the money.
DN: Best thing the University of Utah has going for it?
DP: Certainly right at the top of the list is the great faculty we have here. We have faculty that could be at any of the Ivy League institutions. There are definitely people here who get recruited by Stanford and Harvard and the best schools in the country but choose to stay because of the environment at the university and Salt Lake City. That’s the kind of place we have here.
DN: Is a college education still the way to go?
DP: There’s a new study that shows that during the Great Recession, the jobs that don’t require a college education of any kind dropped dramatically, and have stayed down, while the jobs requiring a college education have grown dramatically. That’s the future, I tell students. We have got to get the young people in the state of Utah educated so they’re ready for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday.
DN: From the sounds of it, you’re at Utah for the long haul?
DP: I’m not looking for the next job. I don’t want to be president somewhere else. That’s a very freeing feeling. I can make the decisions I think are best for the state of Utah and the University of Utah versus trying to think about, OK, what do I need to accomplish to get the next presidency? This is a really good university and Utah is a wonderful state, and I certainly expect to spend the rest of my life here.