U of U President David W. Pershing: Find opportunity in failure

Bryan Pearson
David Pershing, president of University of Utah, delivering the Forum address Tuesday, March 24, 2015. (Bryan Pearson)

University of Utah President David W. Pershing spoke to BYU students about making opportunities out of challenges they face at BYU’s Forum March 24.

Pershing began by saying that most of the speakers at BYU had probably shared inspirational stories but that he would not be following that tradition. Pershing said he would speak of challenges and failure and how they can lead to “unforeseen, important opportunities.”

Pershing said he was raised in the cornfields of Indiana and was encouraged to obtain a college degree. This, he said, is where his first challenge came.

“I had my sights set on MIT but, of course, we could not afford that, so I had to settle for the local state engineering school … Purdue,” Pershing said. “What I did not recognize then, was that I wasn’t really settling at all.”

He made jokes about solving math problems with slide rulers and old-fashioned computers and talked about how far educational tools have come.

“We have come a long way — my MacBook Pro is now bigger and faster than the mainframe at Purdue was then,” Pershing said. “The tools of education have changed, but the value and importance of learning has not.”

Pershing encouraged students to get involved and make the most of their time at BYU.

“Don’t just go to class. If that is all you do, you will miss the best part of being at Brigham Young University,” Pershing said. “Find something that motivates you, inspires you and fills you with curiosity, then explore it. Identifying what ignites your imagination will likely help to determine your life direction.”

As Pershing neared graduation, he said, he felt that his life had a clear direction until an unexpected challenge presented itself. During his senior year, the Vietnam War was at its peak, and the government created a lottery to decide which men should be drafted into the Army.

“If your birthday was drawn in the first third, you were sure to be drafted,” Pershing said. “The nation watched, and mothers wept, as birthdays filled that board. My number was 125 — I was among those in the first third.”

Pershing said he knew serving his country was important and that it would have to come before any other pursuits. He questioned how he could serve his country best. He decided he would be able to serve best by enlisting in the US Public Health Service.

“When my draft number was called, it appeared fate had provided a challenge to the future that I had planned and had worked very hard for,” Pershing said. “But almost everything in the rest of my career has followed from that one pivotal decision on how best to serve my country.”

Many opportunities opened up, he said, including being sent to Amsterdam and London to learn from coal experts. He gained lifelong friends and realized the world is an “interesting, complex and highly interconnected place.” He encouraged students to take opportunities to travel.

“Travel helps provide perspective on global issues and enlarge our humanity, which is increasingly important as the world shrinks and economies become ever more integrated,” Pershing said.

Pershing worked as a public health officer for three years and then decided to go back to school to obtain his Ph.D.

“I suspected then what I know for sure now — education opens doors that may otherwise be closed,” he said.

Pershing became a faculty member at University of Utah and had opportunities to engage in research, which, he said, led to more failures and more opportunities. Pershing had the opportunity to present his research at a conference where more than 1,000 scientists were in attendance.

“On the morning of my presentation, I entered the designated room and found a huge audience of eight people sitting in a sea of empty chairs,” Pershing said. “I was crushed. I was even tempted to turn my back on this bad luck and walk out, but I didn’t.”

After he presented on his research, one of the audience members approached him and expressed how much he enjoyed his work. This audience member was the vice president of BHP, and his office was in Sydney, Australia.

“As a result of this seemingly failed presentation, I was able to fly to Australia several times, including one trip around the world on Singapore Airlines,” Pershing said. “It opened up a world of new opportunities, and I learned, once again, that success can, at times, masquerade as failure.”

Pershing’s first administrative role at the U of U was as the associate dean of the graduate school; however, the search committee decided that Pershing’s experience was too narrow to field this position. He was later selected to be the dean of the College of Engineering.

“I had three goals when I became the dean of Engineering: (1) to improve faculty salaries, (2) to expand the size of the college, and (3) to secure a desperately needed new building for our college,” Pershing said. “I was successful on the first two goals, but I could not get us a new building.”

Pershing spoke of the success in research he had at this time and his eventual move to become the senior vice president for academic affairs.

“This was a big step for a guy who never even wanted to be in administration,” Pershing said. “One of my close friends said to me, ‘I thought you were too smart to take an awful job like that.'”

Pershing spoke about the changes he helped launch at the U of U. New buildings have been erected, and other buildings have been remodeled to enhance the campus. In the spring of 2011, the former U of U president took a new job at University of Washington, and Pershing was selected as the new president of the university.

“At my inauguration I promised students would be job No. 1 during my presidency,” Pershing said. “We have 32,000 students, and their education is my first priority.”

Pershing spoke of the new developments on the U of U campus and encouraged students further to look into graduate schools. He also encouraged students to plan for success and failure in their future.

“Dare to imagine, and don’t be afraid to re-imagine and re-invent yourself and your future,” Pershing said. “If you don’t fail once in a while, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.”

Pershing finished by showing pictures of his family and said his greatest achievements come from his experiences at home, something he said he learned from his parents.

“Don’t ever forget your family. Your professional life is important, but in the end, family is what matters most,” Pershing said.

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