by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Board of Regents of the University of Washington (UW) announced this week their unanimous decision to appoint Michael K. Young, 61, as the next president of the university.
When reports came in that Young was a devout Mormon and former Bush administration official, the Seattle Gay News staff began to field phone calls and emails from community members expressing concern about his nomination - after all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) hasn't exactly been a strong advocate for LGBT equality, and Young is a special advisor to the top leadership of the church. Though he may be the perfect solution to the university's fiscal problems, at first glance it may seem that Young's involvement with the LDS church could cause problems with the UW's LGBT students and faculty.
However, the truth is that Young is pretty damn progressive. He boasts an outstanding record of LGBT support, and in some cases, even advocacy.
A RÉSUMÉ WORTH REVIEWING
'I am really passionate about inclusion,' Young, who will transition out of his role as president of the University of Utah to the top seat at UW on July 1, told Seattle Gay News. 'I believe that universities have an obligation to be a safe space for everybody. Frankly, so does society. A university must be, and always remain, a safe place where dialogue can occur in a respectful and civil manner.'
Young knows a thing or two about administrating policy and ensuring that whatever university he is involved with is a safe space.
Young's résumé boasts a career that runs the spectrum of community, religious, and political service: bachelor's degree from BYU; Mormon mission in Japan; law degree from Harvard, where he made Law Review; U.S. Supreme Court clerkship; law professor at Columbia; Mormon stake president in New York; law dean at George Washington University; U.S. ambassador for trade and environmental affairs; deputy undersecretary of state for economic and agricultural affairs; and chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Young's mentors include the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (not exactly a friend of the LGBT community), former Secretary of State James Baker III (a campaign advisor to President George W. Bush who oversaw the Florida recount), and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick. With friends like these, you could see how some in the community would say there is cause for alarm.
Professionally, however, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything on Young that would suggest that he is anti-Gay when it comes to his post as president of a university - in fact, you would discover the contrary.
'SAFE AND WELCOMING FOR ALL'
'During President Young's tenure, the LGBT community of students, faculty, and staff received the greatest level of institutional support in campus history,' Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president of Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah, told SGN. 'The LGBT community at the University of Utah is a large and vibrant community of students and staff.'
In fact, said Villalpando, 'four years ago, the campus was nationally ranked as having one of the most supportive environments for LGBT students in higher education.'
'President Young's leadership and support has been one of the most important factors behind the success of the LGBT community on the campus,' he told SGN. 'My prediction is that the University of Washington's LGBT community will find a strong ally and supporter in President Young.'
Young told SGN that the inclusion and acceptance of LGBT students and staff under his watch was not achieved 'by accident; it was intentional.'
'Senior leadership must reflect diversity,' he said. 'Dialogue on topics such as LGBT equality should start at the top and then trickle down. At University of Utah, we have Gay deans. I've always known it is important to make sure that not only do student groups feel safe and comfortable and empowered, but that this is reflected in the leadership, as well. If you can do that - and you should do that - then you end up with a campus that creates, for everybody, an atmosphere that is safe and welcoming for all.'
Utah is a long way from Washington, and Salt Lake City politics and the influence of the LDS church are an even longer way from Seattle and its largely progressive populace. Young told SGN he aware of - and somewhat amused by - the perception that he might not be a good fit for the job based on his religious beliefs and past political affiliation.
'I think Seattle is legendary for its tolerance, and I would hope that my moving there from Utah would be tolerated as well,' he joked. 'But in all honesty, 45 of my 61 years were spent outside of Utah. I spent decades in other places, from New York to Japan. I'm not exactly a bastion of the Tea Party.'
'What is amusing to me is that people tend to pick out one factor or another to base their whole assumption of me on,' he continued. 'I've been accused of being a flaming liberal and a Communist - none of which are true, of course.'
'Conservative or liberal, Mormon or not, you can look at my record and you will find that, throughout my career, I've been able to work directly with the community of which I am a part,' said Young. 'Seattle will be no different.'
SOME REMAIN CAUTIOUS ABOUT SUPPORT
Still, some locals remain cautious. Nick Literski, an ex-Mormon with over 25 years of experience with the LDS church, says the key word is 'watchfulness.'
'I think the public needs to be aware of what he does and says on the side,' Literski said. 'It's his involvement with the highest members of the Mormon church that concerns me. Some of the things he has said when giving recent speeches are concerning.'
One of the speeches Literski is talking about took place earlier this month when Young was addressing the LDS International Society at Brigham Young University.
'In his speech, Mr. Young ranked the idea that religion is a 'private affair' not entitled to special treatment in the public square as the second-most severe argument that 'critics are using to limit religious freedom in America,' said Literski. 'Attempting to support his novel theory of religious entitlement, Mr. Young castigated the decision of Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, who wrote in his ruling to overturn California's Proposition 8 that religious arguments could not be used as justification to deny civil rights to Gay and Lesbian citizens. Mr. Young has spoken at similarly themed conferences in the past.'
Literski said that although Young has given a proclamation in support of Gay Pride and 'maybe he will be professional enough to never bring his religious views together with his duties as president of UW,' his actions should still be watched, and the LGBT community should remain cautious about throwing their support behind him.
'While it may be too late to avoid this potentially disastrous appointment, the eye of fair-minded citizens should be ever-watchful to ensure that Mr. Young doesn't bring his religiously privileged bigotry with him to the University of Washington,' he said.
'WE ARE NOT GOING TO & DISCRIMINATE AGAINST ANYONE'
Young, however, paints a very different picture of how he manages his affiliation with the Mormon church and his role as president of a university.
'I want your readers to know that we are not going to, on my watch, discriminate against anyone,' Young told SGN. 'We are not going to favor any religious group. In my life and in my career, I've argued for human rights in foreign countries where people are oppressed. I couldn't not argue for that in my own country.'
'UW,' he said, 'is a wonderfully tolerant place, and that should never change.'
'So, no, we won't be opening faculty meetings with prayer,' he joked.
And, to be fair, Young isn't exactly the model Mormon that some of his detractors may point him out to be. Last year, Young got a divorce from his wife of more than 30 years. Young described the breakup as a 'painful' situation to The Seattle Times.
Young described the climate that surrounded him when the separation took place. 'Utah is not an easy place to get divorced. & And I do sometimes think it makes it harder [in Utah] to accept a simple and true explanation. ... Is he having a psychotic breakdown? Is he Gay? Is he having an affair? Is he sleeping with sheep? Is he clinically depressed? A lot of that stuff is said. And truth of the matter is it's just much simpler than that. It's what happens in a marriage, and I also hope people understand, you don't leave a 35-year marriage casually.'
As for his role as an advisor to the LDS church, Young said people sometimes misunderstand what it is he is advising them about. 'What I advise the church on has nothing to do with their stance on marriage equality,' he said. 'I am an advisor on budget and zone issues and am happy to say that I have never been asked by the church about my views on same-sex marriage.'
So where does Young stand when it comes to Gay marriage? He did not avoid the question, but confidently said, 'I really have my own personal views, and they don't affect what I do at my job. I do not speak for the Mormon church, and the church doesn't speak for me. I have my views and I must say I cannot seem to generate the enthusiasm that some people generate to oppose marriage equality.'
'Look, at the end of the day, I have a record that I am not at all unhappy with,' concluded Young. 'It shows my passionate commitment to equality and tolerance. What I really believe in is that we must create equal dignity and safe space for everybody. Universities, above all other institutions, should work towards that. Educators lead not only by what they say, but by what they do.'
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