In just a few days, after eight years at the University of Utah's helm, Chase Nebeker Peterson will step out of the limelight and back into private life and the world of medicine.
The university's 11th president will return to his internal medicine practice at the U. School of Medicine.But first he'll go through a sort of decompression from the rigors of the president's job - a year's sabbatical with his full salary of $113,000 provided by the Board of Regents.
"I'll take the year to consider and make plans for retraining. There is an assumption that people wouldn't want a rusty doctor caring for them," said Peterson.
Trained in endocrinology - the study of the thyroid, adrenal and other endocrine glands - Peterson last practiced medicine part-time 13 years ago in Massachusetts, where he was a Harvard University administrator.
"It's kind of a warm feeling to think 35 years later you go back full circle. But there are some other things that I'm looking at, quite frankly," he said.
One of them is not politics, despite talk of the possibility of Peterson as a gubernatorial candidate. "Chase and Grethe Peterson have earned their private lives," he said, matter-of-factly.
Peterson's presidency will end June 30. "I anticipate I'll wake up July 1 and say, `Who needs Chase Peterson at 9 a.m.?' The answer will be nobody. Some of that is scary, but it's part of the human experience."
His anticipation stretches back a year. Last June, in a surprise but politically astute announcement, Peterson declared he would resign the presidency. The decision came after two years of crises that rocked the U., including turmoil over the announcement of and funding for cold fusion; the dissension over renaming the U. Medical Center for businessman James L. Sorenson; and the question of Peterson's effectiveness as seen in an Academic Senate vote.
Faculty members, upset over Peterson's plan to restructure the U. administration in a way that they felt diminished their voice and smarting from publicity surrounding the failed Sorenson deal and cold fusion, asked that the state Board of Regents review the president's performance.
Peterson's announcement killed the controversy and silenced his critics. The faculty withdrew its request.
But Peterson, who has always maintained strong support from the U.'s Board of Trustees and regents, never had to fear for his job. At 61 he could have stayed another four years - until the regents' mandatory retirement age of 65 for college presidents.
"But it seemed inefficient for both me and the university," he said of another four years. "I was the symbol for a lot of battles. We would have continued fighting these side battles. When we cleared the decks (with the retirement decision), people got together, even people who had been disagreeing with me. This has been one of the really great years."
Graceful conclusion to tenure
With dinners, a resolution of appreciation by the Utah Legislature and U. honorary doctorate degrees bestowed on both Peterson and his wife, the past 12 months have been a graceful conclusion to the presidency of a man whose graceful style served him well, even during the U.'s public stumbles.
Articulate, intelligent and witty, Peterson has been equally at ease doing a live shot on the 6 o'clock news, speaking to the state Board of Regents or wooing a donor.
In an arena where stodgy speech is the rule, Peterson cuts to to the heart of the issue, often diffusing a tense situation with a memorable one-liner.
"He has a quick and timely wit that makes difficult deliberations tolerable and even enjoyable . . . I don't know if this is an appropriate comparison, but like the commercial for E.F. Hutton, when Chase Peterson speaks, people listen," said Commissioner of Higher Education Wm. Rolfe Kerr.
"For all the serious things he has done, he always made the journey stimulating and fun," added James Jardine, U. Board of Trustees chairman.
Tackling the tax initiatives
A story Peterson tells about himself illustrates his good humor under fire.
Three years ago, in the height of the tax-initiatives debate, the U. president found himself at the center of the protest storm over taxes for higher education. In two months, he gave 90 speeches fighting the tax initiatives.
En route to a speech in Vernal, Peterson found himself revved up for the message he was to deliver and driving too fast. He was pulled over by a highway patrolman.
Peterson got out of the car, pulled out his identification, introduced himself and explained his mission.
"Now officer," he said, "You understand that I'm going to Vernal to make the case for the maintenance of the tax structure that will support the essential services of the state of Utah."
The officer smiled. Peterson didn't get a ticket.
An inspirational fund-raiser
Jardine believes it's this charm and persuasive style, coupled with a tremendous passion for the U., that made Peterson a truly inspirational fund-raiser - the best in university history.
Last year, the U.'s five-year fund-raising campaign ended with $210 million - an unparalleled feat.
"You don't ask for money," Peterson said of his fund-raising style. "You're not a beggar. You're saying, Such and such is very important to society. Would you be interested in investing some of your reserves?"
He also believed in what he was pitching. "I'm not selling a bunch of horse flesh. I've been in education all of my life. It's made a huge difference in my life. If you believe in something, people see it."
The roots of the crises
But because, like Ronald Reagan, Peterson is the Great Communicator, it's perhaps ironic that a breakdown in communications is at the root of his administration's crises.
The Sorenson deal: "That was a misunderstanding. We'd had assurances from everyone involved that that was what they wanted to do, but when someone interpreted it as the buying of the university, as opposed to funding the university, those (supportive) people disappeared, and it got the wrong spin."
Communication with faculty: "You'd think universities would be experts in communicating, but they are one of the most archaic places around. For me to communicate with a faculty person, I go through a vice president, a dean and a department chairman. You can imagine the distortion, if it even gets through. It's difficult to get to the faculty directly," he said.
A university presidency, he added, is "a very isolating, very lonely job. It's lonely in the middle of everyone. You have to rely on other people for communication."
Fusion: Peterson, along with scientists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, was criticized for the the handling of cold fusion, particularly the initial announcement, which many believe was done improperly at a press conference rather in scientific journals.
"That's nonsense," Peterson said. "You call press conferences (on scientific discoveries) all of the time. Michigan called a press conference six months ago to announce a cystic fibrosis discovery."
The U. was also blamed for acting improperly because it had a financial interest in cold fusion with patents.
"It's done all of the time. Stanford has made millions from recombinant DNA patents. Wisconsin has made millions from synthetic vitamin B and a rat poison that it developed," he said.
Would he have handled it differently? "We wouldn't have done it any differently intellectually or scientifically - but politically. We got beaten up by superior forces when we were asked to go to Washington and explain to Congress why they ought to fund us."
He listed those "superior forces" as the $300 million hot-fusion industry that saw cold fusion as a threat. "For us to be right washed them out."
"It was absolutely important and responsible for this university to pursue it for the sake of the U. and state. We would do it again but we'd know we're up against huge political forces that don't want us to succeed."
". . . When people ask me, `Do you believe in cold fusion?' I remind them patiently that's the wrong question. You don't believe in something in science, you pursue it."
Peterson thinks that those who believe cold fusion has damaged the U. don't know that overall research is up 15 to 20 percent, grants are up and the quality of graduate students is better than ever.
A sense of self confidence
"It comes down to a sense of self confidence," Peterson said of the worry over damage to the U.'s reputation, "and a lot of people in Utah, as opposed to places like Palo Alto or Cambridge, don't have a lot of self-confidence when they get needled and laughed at at national meetings. They don't like people saying, `Oh, you're from that place where the polygamists are blowing up the stake houses, a forger is forging documents and you've got cold fusion."'
As he's traveled around the country, as both president of the National Association of State Colleges and Land-Grant Universities and as a member of the Knight Commission on Athletics - honors that usually don't come to presidents of places on "probation" - Peterson never gets snide remarks about cold fusion.
"The people I know say, `Chase, don't let those SOBs knock you off your feet. Keep slugging. It (fusion) is something that deserves to be understood,"' he related.
He added: "Why aren't people humiliated to come from New York, where you can't walk down Times Square without getting killed? That's a real source of humiliation, but somehow it's more sophisticated."
Peterson, Pons still friends
And although his relationship with chemist Pons appeared strained to the outsiders, Peterson maintained that "we're the best of friends."
Only days ago, Pons sent the outgoing president a "very cordial" letter.
Despite the very public downs, those around Peterson don't want his presidency equated with the controversy near its end, so that the problems overshadowed accomplishments such as the recommitment to undergraduate education, his leadership during the tax initiatives and his effective articulation of the university's mission. They stressed the positive vein of the past eight years.
The high points at the U.
"He'll be remembered, both Chase and Grethe will be remembered, as outstanding leaders of the university during a very difficult time when the U. and higher education faced enormous budget cuts, limited legislative appropriations and the challenges of balancing inordinate enrollments in the system of higher education," Kerr said.
Added Jardine: "He has articulated the mission and importance of the university to the community at large and to the entire state extraordinarily well. He has truly been an effective spokesman for higher education as well."
Peterson summarizes this way: "Vigorous; Grethe and Chase together, totally committed; free speech, free inquiry; support for pluralism, minorities and women; delight in working with interesting people and ideas; guilty of trying too hard sometimes; proud of loving it a lot; grateful for the exposure to brilliant students or faculty engaged in important ideas."
Limelight eventually grew sour
Outgoing University of Utah Chase N. Peterson will be glad to get out of the public fish bowl.
He said he won't miss the attention from the news media that is focused on the U. presidency. "It's tiring," he explained.
To be subjected to the barbs of public comment, an individual needs thick skin, he commented. "Mine is only medium-thick."
He still remembers two incidents that particularly galled him. One news account said that his wife, Grethe, was buying dishes for her personal use.
"We've had our furniture worn out, our dishes broken entertaining 15,000 people in the Rosenblatt House (official U. president's residence). If the reporter had just done the research, she'd have found out that we'd supplied a set of 36 dishes of our own and this set was so we'd have another 24 and could serve 50 people," he said.
The other inaccuracy was actually a headline. "I'd given a talk to the Legislature about the need for diversity of culture in Utah. The headline said, `Peterson Says Utah Needs to Live Down Its Mormon Image.' I'm proud of Mormonism. I'm a Mormon."