IF FORMAL APPROVAL RATINGS existed in higher education, Utah State University President Stan Albrecht's numbers would be approaching something suspicious. Something Orwellian. After five years in office, his levels of support are staggeringly high, making it hard to pen an interview–based half–decade review of his administration without sounding sycophantic. Just listen to the people around him. A staff member: “I would follow Stan Albrecht across hot coals because I believe in him as our leader.” A trustee: “Unequivocally, without a doubt, Stan Albrecht is the best president in the history of Utah State University.”
And in his own understated verbiage, “it's been a productive time.”
I haven't spoken much with Albrecht before I step into his office one frigid fall morning, but I feel like I know him. He knows me, knows my family. Asks how they're doing. That's what everyone had told me about Stan Albrecht — that he's all about people. His upbringing on a small farm in Wayne County, south central Utah, coupled with an educational background in rural sociology, makes him an easy fit with USU's land–grant mission: that education is democratic, and should be taken to all who qualify, regardless of socioeconomic status or geography. Extension VP and Dean of Agriculture Noelle Cockett says, “He's seen as someone who not only understands issues, but who has lived those issues.” And despite zero spare time, he still does. Give him a T–shirt from your club or organization and he'll sport it over his tie. Look for him at a gala, and you might find him in full suit, but sharing a laugh with the comfortably dressed cowboys.
Albrecht looks his usual self as he invites me to sit opposite him at the lacquered coffee table in his classy, muted office. This interview, like much of his presidency, would not be conducted from behind the desk. Nor, by the way, would it go as planned. It's common knowledge in Logan that Albrecht doesn't like to talk about himself, and in accurate anticipation that my questions would address his own personal triumphs and struggles, he heads me off at the pass. He produces a large packet of semi–loose papers anchored with a binder clip, and informs me that it's a list of the goals he set when he started out as president. There were 18, in no particular order. I could ask him whatever I wanted, but the real story of five years, as far as he's concerned, is in the facts. That's who he is.
“Time is precious, and we need to use it wisely”
The account of Stan Albrecht's ascension to the corner office has been told. Put forward in a 2000 national search to replace the retiring George Emert, Albrecht was second in the running to Kermit Hall, who then tapped him as provost. Albrecht's ability to cut through formalities and personally connect with people made him influential and popular in the position, and when Hall announced his resignation in 2004, Albrecht seemed like a natural choice for the presidency. Even so, he elected not to put his name forth again. “They know who I am,” he told his wife, Joyce, and of course, he was right. In a completely unprecedented move, trustees, faculty, staff, and students banded together to persuade the Board of Regents to forgo the customary national search and install Albrecht as president. According to Doug Foxley of USU's Board of Trustees, since Albrecht had come through a search four years previous, the regents conceded.
The Sunburst Lounge was packed tight, Cockett remembers, for the official announcement that USU had named its 15th president. When Albrecht's name was called, the crowd erupted into an emotional standing ovation as he strode to the pulpit. “There was such a wave of excitement and enthusiasm,” she says.
Truth be told, when Albrecht assumed office in February 2005, the university was in need of enthusiasm. Enrollment numbers had been sliding for four years as a result of House Bill 331, which made it harder for out–of–state students to obtain residency in Utah. Relations with the community were poor. Potential donors were dragging their feet. It was already an uphill climb for the new president long before the traumatic events of September 26, a day never to be forgotten by members of the USU family. “I was on my way to a meeting in Salt Lake City when I heard a radio report in Sardine Canyon that there had been a van accident with possible fatalities,” Albrecht recalls. “They didn't say it was ours, but something told me it was.” Following his instincts, Albrecht turned his car around and returned to Logan. He was nearing campus when a phone call confirmed his fear: Seven students and one instructor, all returning from a College of Agriculture research trip, had been killed. Another student would perish in the hospital that night, bringing the final toll to nine.
In the ensuing weeks, the first couple attended each of the viewings and funerals of the nine, and established lasting, compassionate relationships with their families. They still correspond on a regular basis. “We developed a special friendship with those families to carry on their memory in a way that will forever change this university,” says Joyce. “I don't know anyone that could have handled a tragedy like that like my husband.”
“Hardly a day goes by I don't think about it,” the president states of his and the university's own 9/11. “It reminds you that time is precious, and we need to use it wisely.”
Photo GalleryMouse over thumbnail for detail
President Stan Albrecht outside Old Main.
Greeting members of the media as USU's new president.
Board of Regents swearing in ceremony.
A vigil for the College of Agriculture accident victims.
Robbie Peterson, van accident survivor.