Michael Young, who is expected to be named the University of Washington's choice as new president on Monday, significantly raised the profile of his current institution since his arrival seven years ago.
Michael Young, expected to be named the University of Washington’s choice as its new president Monday, significantly raised the profile of his current institution since his arrival seven years ago.
Under Young’s leadership, the University of Utah led the nation in incubating new businesses, expanded international education, had a professor as co-winner of a Nobel Prize, and successfully made a bid to join the big-time Pac-12 athletic conference.
University and community leaders say Young is a brilliant and charismatic leader they would be sorry to lose, but they think he’d fit well as a Husky.
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“He’s a very erudite, yet down-to-earth academic who is very comfortable with all different kinds of people,” said Jim Holtkamp, a longtime friend and adjunct law professor. “People will immediately connect with him.”
UW officials have said the Board of Regents will announce Monday its choice to succeed former President Mark Emmert, who left last summer to take a job with the NCAA.
Citing the need for privacy to attract top candidates, they have been tight-lipped about who was under consideration. And the regents’ selection, according to their agenda, is “conditional on the successful negotiation of an employment contract.”
But sources familiar with the search, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Friday that Young is the regents’ top choice.
While UW officials wouldn’t say what attracted them to Young, many in Utah say it’s difficult to overstate Young’s academic credentials. He is an expert in international human rights, religious freedom and environmental law.
At Columbia University, he founded the Japanese and Korean law program, said Holtkamp, an interest that started when Young went on a Mormon mission to Japan.
He also worked at the State Department under President George H.W. Bush and reportedly advised George W. Bush in his 2000 presidential campaign.
As a professor and dean of the law school at George Washington University, he was so well-respected that when he left, the faculty raised money to renovate the faculty center — and named it after him.
Young expertly navigated cultural minefields. Even though Salt Lake is dominated by Democrats and the rest of the state is overwhelmingly Republican, “he quickly figured out how to create a dialogue with both the red and the blue sectors of Utah,” said Craig Galli, a friend who first met him when he was a student at Columbia and Young was his professor.
It wasn’t always easy. Among Young’s first battles was a legislative fight over whether students and faculty should be allowed to carry weapons on what had been a gun-free campus. The battle is ongoing, but Young managed to fight the proposal vigorously without alienating lawmakers.
He also led a construction boom, kicking off a $1.2 billion capital campaign in 2008 that has transformed Utah’s campus.
“I think right now we have a dozen buildings being constructed,” said Chase Jardine, the University of Utah’s student-body president. “I’m a fifth-year senior, and the campus doesn’t even resemble the one I first came to.”
Kim Wirthlin, formerly the university’s liaison to the Legislature, said Young is gifted at building credibility.
“He worked to really position the university as a strong economic engine for the state,” she said.
Young enticed more venture capitalists to bet on the university and its research. He also helped persuade lawmakers to keep investing in a program to selectively recruit senior research faculty from around the country to accelerate Utah’s program to incubate businesses.
“He was key to strategy and to working with the business community to effectively get the Legislature on board,” Wirthlin said.
When Young came to Utah, many hoped his Mormon faith would help him build better relations with the Utah state Legislature, where many of the lawmakers are Mormons.
He reportedly succeeded, though tensions with lawmakers have risen lately.
Utah’s Legislature is dominated by rural conservatives, with the GOP holding supermajorities in both chambers. Before Young, the university’s administration was seen by many as arrogant, elitist and dominated by a sense of entitlement, said state Rep. David Clark, former House speaker.
“My relationship with the university changed dramatically when the president came in,” Clark said. “How did he pull that off? By being Michael Young.
“He was refreshing,” Clark said. “He has this reservoir of experience and knowledge that he shares in a straightforward and engaging way that’s just not aloof. He’s very endearing, actually.”
In fact, Young has a reputation for tolerance and promoting diversity, and has thrived everywhere from New York to Washington, D.C., and internationally.
“He’s not nearly as conservative as our culture,” said James Macfarlane, a Salt Lake City businessman and chairman of the University of Utah board of trustees when Young was hired. He may be a practicing Mormon, but he’s also “his own guy,” Macfarlane said.
DeeDee Corradini, a former Salt Lake City mayor, said that “what he’s done for the reputation of the university is so outstanding.”
She cited the business startups, and the fact that Utah ranked ahead of MIT.
“It’s a point of civic pride here,” she said.
In March, Inc. magazine ranked Utah first in the nation, beating second-place MIT for the number of startups launched in 2009 based on faculty research.
“In the last 24 months, we’ve had something like 79 companies that have gone from research venture to companies,” said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of Salt Lake Chamber. “Michael Young has literally been the catalyst.”
Nor has there been much blowback from the open secret that Young was being courted by the UW.
“I don’t think anyone begrudged him that,” said H.E. “Bud” Scruggs, former chief of staff to Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter.
Seattle Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Mike Carter contributed to this report.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org