University of Utah President Taylor Randall Reflects on His First Turbulent Year

Six years ago, Taylor Randall, University of Utah’s then-dean of the David Eccles School of Business, stood before a tough crowd. There were no hardball questions about research funding, campus safety, equity or graduation rates. Rather, Randall encouraged his daughter’s classmates to find their passion at Clayton Middle School Career Day. 

“I remember that speech,” says Randall, whose appointment in 2021 as president of the University of Utah has thrust him into the limelight. “It’s true,” he says of a story he shared with the kids, “I did want to be a pro basketball player when I was their age. I lived and breathed basketball, but unfortunately I stopped growing at 5-foot, 9-inches…and I couldn’t jump. It was very clear to me early on that I was in deep trouble.” While Randall may not be living out his NBA fantasies, he says he is living the dream with a career in education. 

Pursuing Passion

The first Utes alum in 50 years to lead his alma mater, the accounting major enrolled at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent eight years earning an MBA and Ph.D. in operations and information management. “I knew I needed to earn a living, but I wanted something with intrinsic value,” he says. “While at Wharton, I really began to admire my professors. They could work on projects they were passionate about and remain intellectually curious, and they could instill confidence in their students. I loved the idea that, like them, I could build organizations and also build people.”

After nearly accepting a teaching position with the University of Chicago, Randall felt a tug toward the Wasatch mountain range. “The job market in Utah academics is thin, so I felt lucky to get a job as a professor of accounting at the UofU in the late ’90s.” Several teaching awards and a decade later, his 2009 appointment to dean of the business school likely came as no surprise to those within the department. In the succeeding decade, under his watch, it grew five-fold and its entrepreneurial program ranked 5th in the country. 

Now leading the charge for the entire University since August 2021, Randall is brimming with plans for the school that “give everyone else FOMO,” but he rejects being credited as the one with all the great ideas. “I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘ideas guy,’ but I think I am someone who recognizes great ideas and gives them a chance,” he says. “That’s the fun part of my job: meeting people who have energy and passion around their great idea—and then clearing the path for it. I hope at the end of the day, that is what I’m known for.”

‘Commuter Campus’ No More

As Randall works to add “5,000 beds in five years” to accommodate the University’s growth and change its long-standing reputation as a “commuter school” (citing data that shows on-campus students do better than their off-campus counterparts), he says he envisions variations of the Lassonde Institute popping up all over campus, like the Impact & Prosperity Epicenter that broke ground last September.

“I think we’re in a moment where universities have to completely redefine the relationship they have with students and their community,” says Randall.  “A student today isn’t like a student 20 or 30 years ago. A teacher’s job is no longer to disseminate information, but to teach students how to use the information at their fingertips.”

‘Who We Include’

Randall is taking seriously the concern among some that an internal hire—particularly a hometown white man—is perpetuating what some see as the “establishment” rather than a pivot. How to be more inclusive of a changing student body demographic and addressing campus safety top his priority list. 

In March, the U held its first-ever campus safety conference with Jill McCluskey as the opening speaker. Her daughter Lauren was killed on the U’s campus in 2018. McCluskey acknowledged the safety improvements made at the U since but emphasized the improvements still needed, especially concerning cross-campus communication.

When it comes to inclusiveness, Randall recognized his limitations upon taking office and created a transition team to improve outcomes. Composed of a broad cross-section of the university from students to hospital staff to department chairs, he asked for their recommendations to improve, among other things, sustainability, equity, diversity and inclusion. Through dozens of forums and the creation of the Presidential Commission on Equity and Belonging, he says he’s working to address the harms of racism in the UofU community.

“For too long, universities have made themselves important by excluding people,” he says. “We have to be known for who we include.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

Those middle-schoolers Randall spoke to a handful of years ago? Many are newly-minted college students representing a generation described as more values-driven in their approach to job prospects. Many students want to infuse more meaning into their careers when they enter the workforce. Randall hopes to turn students’ interests into projects that combine profit and purpose—leading to personal satisfaction while tackling Utah’s biggest challenges.

During his first year and a half, he has met with members of the legislature, leaders of other Utah-based universities and community advocates to “clear a path” for student collaboration that could solve our state’s most pressing concerns. “I want people to say, ‘Look what the U is doing’, then join us,” he says. From the Great Salt Lake’s toxic dust, to poor air quality along the Wasatch Front, to inequitable health outcomes throughout the state, Randall thinks the UofU is poised to find the solutions.

“Ideas that change society come from universities,” he says, adding that the UofU is the largest research university in the state by far. “We don’t just want to do research for research’s sake, we actually want to take it into the community so students can see how it changes not only the lives of others but their own.”  

University of Utah President
Photo: Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah

Eat, Sleep, Learn

UofU’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute opened its doors in 2016. One of the first buildings of its kind, it offers students a combined residential and learning space complete with studios where they can not only eat, sleep and socialize but also build prototypes and launch companies. 

Randall plans to model the success of the Lassonde with the Impact & Prosperity Epicenter which will contain two research centers: the Sorenson Impact Center and the Center for Business, Health and Prosperity, in addition to housing nearly 800 students.

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Heather Hayes
Heather Hayes
A Salt Lake native, Heather Hayes has been a voice for Utah’s arts and culture scene for well over a decade, covering music, dance and theater Salt Lake magazine. Heather loves a good yarn, no matter the genre. From seatmates on ski lifts to line-dwellers in a grocery store, no one is safe as she chats up strangers for story ideas. When she’s not badgering her teenagers to pick up their dirty socks or spending quality time with her laptop, you can find Heather worshiping the Wasatch range on her bike, skis or in a pair of running shoes.

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