By Doug Robinson
Deseret Morning News
Sunday, August 21, 2005
If you haven't met Michael Young by now or seen him out and about, you must be in hiding. He's been as ubiquitous as Jessica Simpson.
Since taking over as president of the University of Utah a little more than a year ago, Young has turned up everywhere from Jackson Hole to China, maintaining a schedule so jampacked that some worry he's going to burn out.
"He's very high energy," said athletic director Chris Hill. "He's getting the lay of the land and trying to get people connected and getting to know as many people as he can to sell our story."
When Young agreed to sit long enough for this newspaper interview, he confessed, "I have an ulterior motive. I want people in the community to know me and feel comfortable with me."
If you're going to feel comfortable with this guy, you'd better wear your sneakers. He is on the move.
According to his secretary, Liz McCoy, Young's schedule in a recent month went something like this (take a deep breath): He did two TV interviews, one newspaper interview and a TV commercial, reviewed 160 tenure cases for the faculty, attended 16 off-campus meetings, delivered 10 speeches (two commencements), hosted or attended seven business dinners, had 75 on-campus meetings ranging from face time with the Mexican consul and the president of the Puerto Rico higher education system to a women's basketball recruit and members of his Cabinet, made a three-day trip to Washington to meet with congressional delegations, flew to China for a week, and a few days later, after attending conference meetings in Jackson Hole and regent meetings in Salt Lake City, he flew to Japan for more meetings to open the new month.
"He's all of what we hoped he'd be," said Nolan Karras, chairman of the Utah Board of Regents. "He realizes he's got a honeymoon period. He has his best chance of getting things done while the Legislature is still fond of him. After he's been there 10 years and has had to make tough decisions, it changes. The only criticism I've heard so far is that he is spreading himself too thin, that he might burn out."
Young said he is still trying to get a feel for the university. (He waited about a year before he was officially inaugurated so he could, he said, get to know the university better.) "Things will slow down," he said, "but I'm pretty high energy when I do something I love and I think is important. If I'm going to really help move the university to the next level, it will be a function of knowing a lot about the university and engaging a lot of people who know the university even better than I do."
Once or twice a week he sits in classrooms or visits research laboratories, quizzing professors about their work, observing experiments and listening to lectures.
"It's a little staged; they know I'm coming, but I am learning things about the university so I know the whole picture," he said.
Young is striving to connect the various departments — interdisciplinary cooperation, the U. calls it — in the classroom and in research, to prevent overlap and to foster broader education and more effective research.
In his mind, it's not enough for, say, a chemistry student to study only chemistry; he needs to learn technology to function in the high-tech world and business to be an entrepreneur and other cultures to compete abroad.
The U. is famous, for example, for computer graphics, but those graphics were commercialized outside of Utah. Young's brainchild is technology venture development, in which a branch of the business department is working with the biotechnology department to ensure that technology developed by the U. is commercialized in Utah.
The way Young envisions it, there will be more joint ventures like the one that has teamed mechanical and bioengineering departments with the Brain Institute to develop wireless electrode implants that could provide artificial vision for the blind and stimulate paralyzed body parts.
On a roll
It is clear that the U. and its president are on a roll, and not just in the athletic department.
"Sports are a metaphor for what's happening across the campus," said Dave Pershing, senior vice president of academic affairs. The Utes are nationally ranked in health science, business, fine arts, humanities, among others.
Given his varied background in international politics, business and law, Young is trying to put the U. on the world stage, sending students abroad, bringing foreign exchange students to the campus, ensuring that international cultures and business customs are being taught on campus.
Young believes Utah has a unique student body. For one thing, its students might have the best foreign-language skills of any public university in the country (think LDS missionaries), and he believes those skills are being underutilized. They could be advantageous on the growing world market.
Undoubtedly, Young inherited a university that was already headed in the right direction, but he has pushed the agenda ahead at a new pace and added his own agenda and considerable passion.
"He's so excited about what he's doing," said Young's wife, Suzan. "He keeps saying, 'This is a jewel, and nobody knows about it.' "
This passion for the U. raised a few eyebrows, coming as it does from a BYU graduate and a descendant of Brigham Young's brother. Young, who has three children, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (He has served as a stake president and an early-morning seminary teacher.) Signing on with the U. seemed tantamount to Lincoln joining the Confederacy. On the other hand, BYU President Cecil Samuelson is a U. graduate.
"With my last name, (religion affiliation) is usually the third question I'm asked," he said. "Two things I remind people. We refer to BYU as the University of Utah-Provo. Brigham Young got its start as the Timpanogos branch of the University of Deseret (which later became the U.). I tell Cecil, all is forgiven; they can come back into the fold any time they want. We try to beat each other's brains out in football, but we have about 40 collaborative projects with BYU professors. It improves the quality of both schools."
For a man working long hours — cheerfully — Young acts like a man who is having way too much fun.
"I have yet to get any negative comment about him, which is unbelievable," said regent Jim Jardine. "I'm sure some don't like decisions he's made, but if he were getting a report card today, he'd have a 4-point."
Said Snow College President Mike Benson, "He has all the bona fides to be taken very seriously in any setting — world and political affairs, academia, business, law, etc. — yet I've never met anyone more self-deprecating and less full of himself than Mike."
Young looks at the large portraits of Utah's past 13 presidents hanging in the hallway outside his office and says, "It's hard to imagine my portrait up there with those guys. It will be like that 'Sesame Street' game — which one's not like the other one?"
Young likes to tell this story: His great-great-great-grandfather was Lorenzo Dow Young, younger brother of Brigham Young and a member of the first pioneer wagon train to reach the Salt Lake Valley. (Lorenzo is pictured in bas-relief on the west side of the This Is the Place Monument, the man closest to the woman — his wife.)
"He wasn't as smart as Brigham, but he was very loyal and hard working," Young said. "That's the gene pool I come from."
Then again, the U. president did graduate from Harvard Law School and held several positions in the George H.W. Bush administration and taught at Yale and Columbia and helped craft the German unification process and studied and worked in Japan for years.
Educating the president
Young's passion for education is easy to trace.
His mother, Ethelyn Sowards Young, flew bombers during World War II. His father, Vance Young, owned a small grocery store. They lived in Chester, California, a small, isolated lumber and cattle town.
Believing the school system to be weak, Mike and his mother moved in with his grandparents in Provo for the school year. (He attended the now-extinct Brigham Young High.)They returned to California only for the summers. After serving a church mission in Japan, he graduated from BYU with a degree in political science and Japanese and was accepted to Harvard Law School.
"I knew from junior high on that I wanted to be a lawyer," he said. "My mother probably hovered over my crib telling me to be a lawyer."
He describes his mother, Ethelyn, as a "feisty, free spirit." She grew up in Provo with little money in a family of eight children. After she caught the flying bug from books about Amelia Earhart, she offered her secretarial services at a local airport in exchange for flying lessons. When World War II began, she flew bombers from the factory to the front, as did other women, freeing men to fly combat missions.
"My mother loved to argue," Young said. "She absolutely detested Richard Nixon until Watergate. Then she loved him. She was in Utah, and everyone hated him, so she loved him, mostly to provoke me. I spent my childhood arguing with her about it. It was wonderful. Sue came to the house and saw my mother and me going at it, and Sue was appalled that I would argue with my mom like that."
He pulled good grades in school, largely because, in his estimation, he had a good memory. ("I spent an inappropriately large amount of time on the ski slopes," he recalled.)
He said two events turned him into a real student. First, he was invited to participate in a research project by a professor who saw something in Young's work.
"It told me serious people might take me seriously and work with me," he recalled. "I wonder if my passion for teaching doesn't come out of that. I can trace my career from that moment to here."
The second event occurred at Harvard. As he tells it, "In law school, a professor would hand me a book, I would memorize it, repeat it on the test, get a good grade and go on my way. It seemed like a good bargain. Then one day, after reading a case, the first words out of the professor's mouth was: 'What is wrong with the judge's decision?'
"I'm thinking, what do you mean? It's in the text. It must be right. It completely upset my routine. It was terrifying. I seriously thought in all likelihood I would flunk out.
"I didn't know if I had any analytic capability at all. I had no backup plan. What was I going to do now, sell insurance? I studied for two months out of sheer terror. Then I remember waking up one morning thinking I love this stuff. The knot in my stomach was gone. I loved studying. I loved the idea of thinking and learning. It was life changing. It gave me a passion for the life of the mind."
He planned to go into private practice, but he never got around to it. He clerked for a judge in Boston for a year. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist for another year. Then the teaching offers came. He took a position at Columbia to teach Japanese law. To learn the subject better, he spent 2 1/2 years in Japan — where he had served his church mission — studying Japanese law.
Many Americans study in Japan, but not many of them actually sit in regular Japanese classes with Japanese students and write their papers in the Japanese language and study Japanese-language books.
"I wanted to learn it the way they learn it," he explained.
At Columbia, he created a center for Japanese legal studies, comparing Japanese and U.S. law, analyzing the efficiency and styles of the systems.
He taught at Columbia until 1989, when he took a leave of absence to accept a position in the State Department.
One thing led to another. Young served as ambassador for trade and environmental affairs from 1992-93, deputy undersecretary for economic and agricultural affairs from 1991-93 and deputy legal adviser to the U.S. State Department 1989-91. In 1996, he served as counsel to the Select Subcommittee on Transfers of Iranian Arms to Bosnian Muslims of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As deputy legal adviser in the first Bush administration, he was assigned to supervise the legal work of Europe, which put him on the front row of history.
"Three weeks later the Berlin Wall came down," he said. "Then they needed a lawyer for the U.S. delegation for German unification."
He spent half of each month in Europe working on unification and drafted much of the treaty.
He has signed photos from then-Secretary of State James Baker thanking him for his role in German unification, as well as photos signed by the first President Bush and Rehnquist.
Young returned to Columbia when the Bush administration ended. Over the years he continued to be involved in political causes. He recently ended his service as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. (He has twice chaired the commission.)
Swept off his feet
When Utah found him he was dean of George Washington's law school, a post he took in 1998. He was such a popular dean — some say he was next in line to be GW's president — that when he left for Utah, one professor told the Salt Lake Tribune, "You guys suck. And you can quote me on that."
"The regard and admiration that flowed back from George Washington was amazing," Jardine said. "The feedback from all over was so positive. And this is a guy who makes decisions — you know what they say: Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. We could get none of it. After we were done with interviews, it was absolutely clear to everyone that this was the guy."
The 55-year-old Young and his family have visited Utah regularly for years, backpacking the Uintas or escaping to their cabin in Deer Valley. On the rare occasion he relaxes, Young favors skiing, backpacking, fly fishing, hiking.
"He loves to be outdoors and he loves to be with his kids," Suzan said.
His daughter, Kathryn, an Air Force Academy graduate who, like her father, served a mission in Japan, is an engineer stationed at Scott Air Force Base (Ill.). She caught the flying bug like her grandmother and soloed an airplane before she drove a car. Stewart, who also served a mission to Japan, graduated from Princeton and took a law degree from Stanford. Andrew is a senior at George Washington.
Young describes his style as pragmatic and businesslike.
His wife, he said, brings the charm. "It annoys me now," he said, smiling. "When I walk into any university event, people shake my hand and look over my shoulder. 'Where's your wife?' "
Young had never aspired to be a university president, although he had received feelers from schools for their presidency, but he says he was swept off his feet by the potential of Utah. And now, here he is — the kid from a small California lumber town.
"I wasn't interested until I heard from this school," he said.
"I have been at a lot of very good universities," Young said. "This university has so many different areas that are on par with the best universities in the U.S." He paused for a moment, then added, "It imposes a real sense of responsibility. I've got a real gem here; I don't want to screw it up."