Pro-LGBT Mormon Elected President of the University of Washington
The University of Washington’s Board of Regents announced late last month their unanimous decision to appoint Michael K. Young as UW’s next president.
The high-ranking Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints member’s appointment initially prompted many LGBTs to question the decision. Could a devout Mormon who once advised former President George W. Bush fit in in ultra-liberal Seattle? After all; the Mormons haven’t exactly proven themselves particularly strong advocates for LGBT equality, and Young is a special advisor to LDS’ top leadership. But he actually boasts an outstanding record of LGBT support and, in some cases, advocacy.
"I am really passionate about inclusion," Young, 61, told EDGE. "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, who is currently president of the University of Utah, will officially take the helm of UW on July 1.
He said he knows a thing or two about administrating policy and ensures that whatever university with which he is involved will remain a safe space.
His career includes community, religious and political service. Young holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. He also went on a Mormon mission in Japan before earning a law degree from Harvard University, where he made Law Review.
Young was also a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court; a law professor at Columbia University; a Mormon stake president in New York; law dean at George Washington University; ambassador for trade and environmental affairs; deputy undersecretary of state for economic and agricultural affairs and chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Young’s mentors include the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was not exactly a friend to LGBTs; former Secretary of State James Baker III, who oversaw the Florida recount in 2000; and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick. With friends like these, one could see how some LGBTs may conclude there is cause for alarm.
Professionally, however, one would be hard pressed to find anything on record that would suggest Young harbors anti-gay sentiment. "During President Young’s tenure, the LGBT community of students, faculty, and staff received the greatest level of institutional support in campus history," said Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president of Equity and Diversity at University of Utah. "The LGBT community at the University of Utah is a large and vibrant community of students and staff."
Villalpando pointed out the university was ranked as among the most LGBT-friendly campuses in the country.
"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 EDGE. "My prediction is that the University of Washington’s LGBT community will find a strong ally and supporter in President Young."
Young says that the inclusion and acceptance of LGBT students and staff under his watch was not achieved "by accident."
"Senior leadership must reflect diversity," he said. "Dialogue on topics such as LGBT equality should start at the top and then trickle down. At [the] University of Utah, we have gay deans. I’ve always known that is important make sure that, not only do student groups feel safe and comfortable and empowered, but that is reflected in 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 some would argue that Salt Lake City politics and the Mormon Church’s influence are an even longer way from Seattle and the influence of progressives who live in the Emerald City.
Young: I’m Not Exactly a Bastion of the Tea Party.
Young told EDGE he is aware of, and somewhat amused by, the perception that he might not be a good fit for the job because of 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 was 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. I’ve been accused of being a flaming Liberal and a Communist. None of which are true, of course."
Young urged his critics to simply look at his record.
"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," he said. "Seattle will be no different. I want your readers to know that we are not going to, on my watch, discriminate against anyone. 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."
Young described UW as "a wonderfully tolerant place."
"That should never change," he added.
And, to be fair, Young isn’t exactly the "model Mormon" that some of his detractors may point him out to be. He and his wife of more than 30 years, Suzan, divorced last year. Young described the breakup as a "painful" situation to "The Seattle Times".
"Utah is not an easy place to get divorced... and I do sometimes think it makes it harder here maybe 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," he 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 far as his role as an advisor to the Mormon Church, Young said that sometimes people misunderstand what it is about which he is advising them. "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."
Young Remains Proud of Pro-LGBT Record
So where does Young stand when it comes to marriage for gays and lesbians?
"I really have my own personal views and they don’t effect what I do at my job," he said. "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."
Young concluded by once again saying he remains proud of his record.
"It shows my passionate commitment to equality and tolerance," he said. "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."