"He's a Mormon." Admit it, when word broke that the University of Washington had selected University of Utah president Michael K. Young as its next president, that
was one of the first thoughts that went through your head. True, Young is the great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young's brother. But the bigger biographical detail, the one that could most influence the future of Washington State's "public Ivy," has nothing to do with Young's religion: He's a Republican.
That background—GOP credentials as impeccable as his Mormon ones—could provide a clue as to how Young will attempt to navigate the UW through this era of dramatically reduced state funding.
Apart from the Utah upbringing, Young's Republican pedigree dates back to 1977–78, when he served as a law clerk to then associate justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court, a conservative stalwart and Nixon appointee whom Young later described as "a very close friend and a mentor." A decade later, Young worked his way up the George H. W. Bush administration, first as a deputy legal adviser to the US Department of State (1989–91), then as deputy undersecretary for economic and agricultural affairs (1991–93), and finally as ambassador for trade and environmental affairs (1992–93). There's little written record from which to glean an ideological bent, but these were all partisan appointments, so one can safely assume that both Rehnquist and Bush believed Young to be compatible with their own conservative political philosophies.
Not that any of this should disqualify Young from serving as UW president. Young is clearly smart, well educated, and extremely accomplished, with an impressive academic résumé including the Harvard Law Review, a two-decades-long professorship at Columbia University, and a six-year stint as the dean of law at George Washington University prior to his seven-year tenure at the University of Utah. By all accounts, Young is respected and well liked by both students and faculty. If anything, some in the Latter-day Saints (LDS) community considered his administration to be too liberal... though in Utah, that's an awfully low bar.
Still, considering his background, it's hard not to view Young as a curious choice to lead a liberal Northwest university. "He's an interesting fit," UW student activist Andrew Lewis concedes while effusively praising Young's qualifications. "But when it comes to higher education, I'm not sure partisanship really matters."
Especially when disinvestment has become such a bipartisan affair. Unwilling or unable to raise taxes, Democrats in Olympia have produced a pair of Republican-style budgets that will collectively slash more than 50 percent from state higher education over four years. "There's been a huge breakdown in Olympia," laments Lewis, a leading candidate for Associated Students of University of Washington (ASUW) president who has spent months lobbying lawmakers for more money. "There's no appreciation for the role universities play in economic development, and no regard for human equity." The result has been a steady slide toward privatization, in practice if not in name, that Lewis fears could soon place a UW degree out of reach of middle-class students. And it's not a trend that a UW president is likely to be able to reverse.
So if state budget writers really want the UW to operate like a business, a Republican like Young may be exactly the man to make it happen. Under his leadership, the University of Utah led the nation in monetizing campus research by spinning off commercial enterprises, an entrepreneurial spirit Young promises to bring to Seattle. No doubt Young would prefer Olympia write the UW a blank check—what university president wouldn't? But given the alternative, he has both the disposition and the experience to do what it takes.
Outgoing ASUW president Madeleine McKenna (yes, state attorney general Rob McKenna's daughter) seems reluctantly resigned to this new normal. "Privatization is not anyone's design," says McKenna, but with Olympia refusing to adequately fund higher education, and voters refusing to tax themselves to pay for it, "it's what we're being forced into." McKenna, who sat on the selection committee and lauds Young's appointment, hopes his "approachable and down-to-earth" demeanor will help him squeeze more money out of state budget writers. But she admits that Young's success at generating outside revenue did play into the regents' decision. What never entered the equation, McKenna insists, is religion.
Nor should it. Objectively, Mormonism is no weirder than any other religion, and while his church may aggressively oppose marriage equality, with his long record of advocating for civil rights and religious freedom, there's no evidence that Young shares this particular LDS passion. "We welcome LGBT Pride Week at the U," Young wrote in 2009, "and celebrate the contributions of LGBT students, faculty, and alumni who enrich the culture of our campus and our community." Hardly the words of an anti-gay bigot.
Besides, if he's going to run the UW more like a business, where's the sense in alienating paying customers?