Meet new University of Utah president Taylor Randall — academic freedom guardian, returned missionary and loyal ‘Ute’

Taylor R. Randall is just weeks into his tenure as president of the University of Utah — but the lifelong Latter-day Saint has already welcomed a new class of students, managed efforts to limit COVID-19 spread on campus and, yes, cheered for his Utes competing on the gridiron against their blue-clad rivals.

(The Sept. 11 Utah/BYU football game didn’t end the way Randall wanted — but his high hopes for the 2021 season remain.)

“I’m drinking from a firehose right now, but this is a dream job,” he told the Church News. “I’ve always loved the University of Utah. The school has had a huge impact on my personal and professional development, and I believe in its mission and its entirety.”

Utah’s flagship public university and the Church, of course, are both historically and culturally linked.

The University of Utah was founded in 1850 by Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young. 

“We come out of Utah’s pioneer heritage, and you still see that heritage in the university’s DNA,” he said. “[That pioneer heritage] is a willingness to take on insurmountable challenges with an eye to innovation. It is also a willingness to try new things and create new societal models for living.”

Contemporarily, thousands of University of Utah students are enrolled in the Church’s huge Institute of Religion and/or worship in campus young single adult and married wards.

“We serve a large base of [Church] members, and I think this is a fantastic environment for them. You have the ability to get a diversity of experiences and explore your discipline of interest in a very deep way. Yet at the same time, you can get a very rich spiritual experience by attending some of the wards and participating in institute.”

University of Utah President Taylor Randall talks to a group of prospective and incoming students touring the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.
University of Utah President Taylor Randall talks to a group of prospective and incoming students touring the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The University of Utah draws students from the Beehive State, the Western United States and far beyond. Many are Latter-day Saints. Randall believes that the school he leads “is a welcoming institution” for people of all backgrounds, including Church members. 

Religion is a historical and contemporary force, he added. Political and economic decisions are often made because of an individual’s religious orientation. 

“The University of Utah, because of its place here in the capital of the Church, has a unique opportunity to have dialogues around religion in general: How can religion be an influence for both good and bad in society? We certainly hope it is more of an influence for good.”

The university, he added, offers Latter-day Saint students unique experiences to “sit next to members of other faith traditions and have a chance to have really serious dialogue.”

Randall cites a harmonious link between academic freedom and religious freedom. “To ignore religious liberty would be counterproductive to the standards of the academic freedoms we hold quite dear,” he said.

Faith-driven strength

Prior to being named Utah’s 17th president last month, Randall was dean of the school’s David Eccles School of Business for over a decade. He claimed an undergraduate degree at the University of Utah and graduate degrees at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

He and his wife, Janet — who met at Utah’s Olympus High School — are the parents of four children.

Randall served a mission in Barcelona, Spain. He told the Church News that his personal faith “gives me an enormous amount of strength” to take on each day’s challenges with optimism.

Such spiritual fortification, he added, helps him “lead an institution and an organization. My faith and my love of mankind also allow me to be accepting of others, from any walk of life. 

“It is the reason why inclusion is at the core of what we want to do.”

As school president, Randall is enthused to strengthen relationships between the University of Utah and the school’s vigorous Latter-day Saint community.

“I would hope that we would mutually reinforce each other’s success,” he said. “We want [Latter-day Saints] to feel comfortable, included and welcomed here, as we do for all of the different groups. … That may sound idealistic, but isn’t that why universities exist? We get to put out ideals and try to move toward them.”

University of Utah President Taylor Randall and his wife, Janet, pose during a photoshoot for the University of Utah outside of the Park Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.
University of Utah President Taylor Randall and his wife, Janet, pose during a photoshoot for the University of Utah outside of the Park Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When asked about anecdotes of the University of Utah sometimes being unfriendly to observant Latter-day Saints, Randall points to his own “telling” experiences as an undergraduate at Utah following his mission. 

The academic and cultural environment could be challenging. “But I didn’t find it threatening,” he said. “I actually found it invigorating because I could re-examine some basic assumptions of the world. I think that made me a stronger person with a lot more depth.”

Such tension, he added, is a natural by-product of the learning process. It is not always a comfortable experience, but it can be a positive one. “Often, spiritual inquiry and spiritual learning have a different set of processes than intellectual inquiry. There are times when those two processes challenge each other.”

Utah/BYU: Athletic rivals/Academic partners

Randall appreciates the close proximity between Utah’s flagship public university and BYU, the Church’s flagship school. The Utes and Cougars remain fierce rivals on the athletic courts and fields, but the two schools enjoy a rich tradition of collaboration in the academic realm.

“We have researchers that work with individuals at BYU, and vice versa. That flow and intellectual stimulus that we get from each other have been very productive.”

There is also a tradition of interaction between students from the two institutions. The University of Utah’s Sorenson Impact Center, for example, regularly hosts BYU student researchers.

On a personal level, Randall calls BYU President Kevin J Worthen “an extremely welcoming individual” and counts Gary Cornia, former dean of BYU’s Marriott School of Management, and Elder Kim B. Clark, a General Authority Seventy and former president of BYU-Idaho, as trusted mentors and friends.