Michael Young and the University of Washington seem an odd fit. But this won't be the first time that Young has met with puzzled expression.
Michael K. Young and the University of Washington seem an odd fit. Seattle, compared to most places, is unchurched and liberal. Young is a Mormon who served in the George H.W. Bush administration.
But this won’t be the first time that Young, announced Monday as the university’s new president, has met with puzzled expression.
When he was named the University of Utah’s president in 2004, Young encountered a community divided, with faith and politics but two of the fault lines. In Young, all sides found cause for concern. Non-Mormons worried that Young was Mormon — a graduate of rival Brigham Young University, no less — prompting a local newspaper to compare Young’s appointment to “Lincoln joining the Confederacy.”
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Meanwhile, conservative critics of the university saw in Young an embodiment of their take on the school: liberal and elitist. Young’s résumé, long on Ivy League institutions, betrayed sustained stretches in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
As president, Young soon confronted the charged issue of whether guns should be allowed on the Utah campus. The issue pitted the university and its faculty, determined to retain a gun ban, against the state Legislature.
Young proved adept at navigating the currents. He met one-on-one with lawmakers and steered the debate from “pro-gun” or “anti-gun” to one of economic development, saying the ban’s lifting could make it difficult to recruit top faculty.
The ban ultimately was done away with, but with certain restrictions intact. In the aftermath, the competing sides agree on only this: They like the way Young handled the situation — and they’re sorry to see him go.
“We’re mad at you that you’re taking him away from us,” said Steve Gunn, with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.
“I am actually sad to lose him,” said Rep. Curt Oda, a Republican state legislator from Clearfield.
To Young’s colleagues, the gun debate illustrates his skill at finding common ground and defusing tempers. They also say it shows how it can be a mistake for anyone to isolate select items from Young’s résumé and draw sweeping conclusions.
That résumé radiates: bachelor’s degree from BYU; Mormon mission in Japan; law degree from Harvard, where he made Law Review; U.S. Supreme Court clerkship; law professor at Columbia; Mormon stake president in New York; law dean at George Washington University; ambassador for trade and environmental affairs; deputy undersecretary of state for economic and agricultural affairs; chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Young’s mentors include the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, former Secretary of State James Baker III and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
Young’s diversions include scuba diving, hang gliding, riding a Harley and hiking Denali. In his youth, he considered chucking everything to be a ski instructor.
But strip out the big names, impressive titles and adventurous excursions, and key themes emerge from Young’s life and career: an ability to adapt; an aversion to division and paralysis; and a desire, not always realized, to meet the competing demands of family, faith and work.
His family album
For Young’s influences, family is a good place to start.
His great-great-great-grandfather was Lorenzo Dow Young, younger brother of Brigham Young, the famed pioneer some called the “Mormon Moses.”
Michael Young, 61, spent his early years in Sacramento, where his father worked as a civil engineer. But the family moved to Chester, a small logging town in Northern California, when Michael’s uncle, a store owner, was robbed and murdered, along with his two children. Michael’s parents took over the store.
Michael, accompanied by his mother, later went to live with his grandparents in Provo, Utah. Michael attended Brigham Young High School, where he wrestled and won the state’s debating championship, according to Jim Holtkamp, a high-school classmate. Because his father stayed in California, with the store, Michael split time between the states.
In writings and in conversation with family and friends, Michael Young describes how his life has been shaped by his grandfather, his mother and his oldest son.
Wilbur Sowards, the father of Michael’s mother, owned a small corner grocery in Provo. But in his youth he served three missions, two in the South. Those missions were charged with danger. In Kentucky, Sowards replaced a missionary who had been lynched.
In a chapter for the book “Finding God at BYU,” Michael Young wrote of his grandfather:
“I spent many days and evenings literally sitting at his feet, listening to him tell of his missionary experiences, of his close brushes with death, and of the Lord’s intervention and protection. Those were dramatic stories for a young boy, full of high adventure, of close calls, of too many rescues to count. …
“I learned that the Lord could truly be counted on to save and protect those who were on his errand.”
Young’s mother, Ethelyn Sowards Young, was one of eight children. She became a teacher and a pilot, and in World War II flew bombers from the factory to the European theater. When Utah Business magazine asked Young to name his most powerful influence, he cited his mother.
“She taught me to believe in myself and, perhaps even more importantly, to believe in others. She taught me that service to others is the most important aim of any life and one’s work life ought to reflect that. And she taught me anything was possible.”
Young has three children of his own. His oldest, Stewart, worked as a federal prosecutor in San Diego before joining the University of Wyoming law faculty last year.
When Stewart was about 18 months old, his dad clerked for Rehnquist, then an associate member of the Supreme Court.
Young was at the right elbow of history, taking long walks with Rehnquist as he struggled with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a landmark affirmative-action case.
In the morning, before heading to the Supreme Court, Young often played with his son, rolling a ball back and forth. It was their first game of catch. Young later would tell his son that although he had the best job imaginable, “this was more fun to me than that.”
As his kids grew up, Young showed up for their meets and games. Stewart swam, rowed and played football; Kathryn played lacrosse, soccer and basketball; Andrew played lacrosse and ran cross country.
Stewart, at age 19, served a mission in Japan, where he was allowed to call home only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. His father knew how lonely the work of a missionary can be, Stewart says, so every week his dad wrote him a 15-page letter — “intensely personal,” with words of encouragement and details from home.
He came to know his father through those letters.
“I kept them all,” Stewart said.
As a student, professor and administrator, Young has found university life to be rich with lessons that go beyond textbooks.
At BYU, Young and Holtkamp attended a speech by Hubert Humphrey inside a 12,000-seat field house. To show Humphrey how Utah differed from the rest of the country, the BYU president asked all students who supported the Vietnam War to stand. Holtkamp remembers students rising across the stadium, while he and Young remained seated.
Young ran into professors who forced him to think instead of simply memorize. “My initial reaction was, of course, high irritation,” Young wrote of those days. “After all, I thought I understood the game pretty well, and I had certainly mastered it, at least as I understood it: The teacher would present me with prepackaged material, and I would memorize it quickly and repeat it back on the examination. The teacher would then give me a good grade, and we would both pretend that I was smart.”
After getting his Harvard law degree and clerking for Rehnquist, Young became a law professor at Columbia, where he directed the Center for Japanese Legal Studies. He tried to compartmentalize, but learned the difficulties of chasing tenure while raising kids.
“I occasionally used the Socratic method at the dinner table and cut up the food of my dinner companion at a formal banquet,” he wrote in an article in the Brigham Young University Law Review.
Young’s daughter, Kathryn Owen, says that in Manhattan, her dad made a point of being home for dinner and tucking the kids into bed. She didn’t learn until years later that he would then go back to work for hours.
While teaching law, Young imbued his kids with a sense of adventure. He let them go bungee jumping. He let his daughter get a pilot’s license while in high school. Owen, now 31, went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy.
Young learned of the effect his faith could have on others.
“In the academic universe, phrases like ‘revealed truth’ and ‘I have a testimony’ have a tendency to stop conversations and clear the faculty lunchroom,” he wrote in the law review article.
After 20 years of teaching, Young left Columbia to become dean of George Washington University law school. His first day, the plumbing broke, turning the school’s largest classroom into “a beautiful, though highly inappropriately located, reflecting pool,” he wrote in a Toledo Law Review article.
Cleaning up afterward, he found there were no paper towels. He muttered about the dean, only to remember: He was now the dean.
“Three steps ahead”
Through the years, Young has been quick to adapt.
When he went to work for the State Department in 1989, he was tapped as a specialist on Japan. But almost immediately he was designated the United States’ lead lawyer in the negotiations to reunify Germany. On the plane ride over the Atlantic, he dived into large volumes of German history.
At the University of Utah, Young’s versatility has likewise been in demand. Randy Dryer, a university trustee who has worked with six school presidents, says he knew Young was special from the get-go.
“Most presidents come in and want to clean house and put in their own hand-picked folks,” Dryer said. “Mike came in and quickly realized he had a top-notch leadership team. He just added his own political savvy.”
Showing a talent for triangulation, Young avoided alienating would-be opponents, according to interviews with more than a dozen Utah power brokers.
Young met with state Senate President John Valentine, who said the new president was “just delightful and gracious.”
David Clark, a former state House speaker, said of Young: “If I were playing chess, this is definitely someone I would like to have on my team. He was always three steps ahead.”
Young showed a talent for fundraising — more than doubling the university’s donor base — and a willingness to battle when needed. He fought when lawmakers tried to limit faculty tenure, Dryer says. When animal-rights groups began protesting near the homes of faculty who used animals in their research, Young lobbied for an ordinance restricting picketing in residential areas.
As his track record drew notice, other universities came calling. When Young became a finalist for a job at Dartmouth, Utah induced him to stay with a $275,000 bonus in 2009.
At Utah, Young also sat on the boards of several companies, including one, MagnetBank, that failed two years ago.
In June 2009, an arbitration panel headed by Young delivered a critical ruling involving NAFTA. A month later, Young testified before Congress to blast the Bowl Championship Series.
At a hearing requested by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Young took the BCS to task, saying college football’s structure for determining its championship penalized all but six conferences. Utah had just completed an undefeated season but was shut out of the championship game.
Some of Young’s vocabulary — for example, “dialogic” and “self-referential” — missed his target audience. “Self-what now?” Hatch asked.
But Young found his stride. He boiled his argument to its basics — “Championship should be decided by competition, not conspiracy” — and even issued a challenge, telling the University of Nebraska’s chancellor, who was also testifying, that he wished the Cornhuskers “were willing to play us.”
The personal is public
In 2010, news broke in the Utah newspapers that Young was getting divorced from Suzan, his wife of more than 30 years.
Michele Mattsson, vice chair of the university’s board of trustees, said Young’s divorce was “shocking and unsettling” and had “divided loyalties” on campus, where Suzan Young ran a popular lecture series.
“It may be good for him to have another opportunity at this time,” Mattsson said.
Young, in an interview with The Seattle Times, said: “This has been a painful, personal situation, for sure. But I’ve not sensed any lack of momentum on the part of the university. We raised more money this year than we raised last year, and more money last year than we did the year before.
“Look, Utah is not an easy place to get divorced. … And I do sometimes think it makes it harder here maybe to accept a simple and true explanation. … Is he having a psychotic breakdown? Is he gay? Is he having an affair? Is he sleeping with sheep? Is he clinically depressed? A lot of that stuff is said. And truth of the matter is it’s just much simpler than that.
“It’s what happens in a marriage, and I also hope people understand, you don’t leave a 35-year marriage casually.”
James Macfarlane, former chair of the University of Utah trustees, said the divorce didn’t endanger Young’s job. But it may have made it easier for Young to leave.
“I think he’s looking for a new start and a more open situation.”
This story was reported by Jonathan Martin, Craig Welch, Bob Young, Jim Brunner and
Ken Armstrong, and written