Elon Musk, University of Utah president diverge on need for college

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 Aug. 20, 2021. Randall, who was appointed president of the state’s flagship institution in August 2021, has an ambitious vision for the U. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Both are alums of the University of Pennsylvania, but Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk and newly inaugurated University of Utah President Taylor Randall have wildly divergent views of the value of an in-person college education.

Musk, speaking at the Satellite 2020 conference, told the audience that people “don’t need college to learn stuff.”

Musk, the world’s richest man who was seeking to buy Twitter on Thursday, earned dual bachelor degrees, an economics degree from the Wharton School and then a bachelor’s degree in physics from Penn.

Randall, who earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from the Wharton School of Business, said Musk is correct, if someone is merely interested in learning information.

“I would simply say it’s true, Elon, you can. You can learn facts, but I’m not sure you will gain wisdom or knowledge of how the world and people work and the latter two are probably just as important as the facts that you have,” Randall said Thursday during a meeting with the Deseret News editorial board.

Randall, who was appointed president of the state’s flagship institution in August 2021, has an ambitious vision for the U., which includes becoming a top 10 public university and in doing so “create outstanding student experiences.”

He envisions developing a “college town” on the U. campus, transforming the commuter campus into a community.

“We just authorized almost 1,700 beds. In two years, we’ll have 1,700 more. To be honest, we need about 4,000,” and to do that, the university will need partnerships, he said.

In addition to building community, research shows on-campus housing pays other dividends: students have higher grade point averages throughout their college careers than peers who live off campus and they are at least 12% more likely to complete their college degrees.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. (Photo: Hannibal Hanschke, Associated Press)

Randall’s reimagining of the U. includes growing the university’s enrollment to 40,000 students over the next seven years and at the same time revolutionizing the student experience.

Randall’s “Utah Fresh” initiative will ensure 80% of freshmen have firsthand experiences such as working with molecules that will change cancer treatment or helping combat air pollution.

The U. also has an aspirational goal of reaching $1 billion in externally funded research over the next seven years and increasing the pace of research impacting lives and solving problems.

Beyond that, the U. is in the planning stages of a $500 million hospital in West Valley City, Utah’s only minority-majority city. The campus will include clinics, classrooms and child care facilities that will employ 1,500 people.

Instead of questioning the value of college, Randall wants the university to impact the lives of all 3.3 million Utahns.

“We want to embed the U. even deeper into the community we serve,” Randall said in his recent inauguration address. “We want to cultivate community connections, build trust, uproot injustices and transform the future of this amazing state we live in.”

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