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Arthur K. Smith had never been to Salt Lake City before he arrived in late May as a finalist for the University of Utah presidency.

"We were impressed from the time we got off the plane," he told the Deseret News shortly after he was named the U.'s 12th president Wednesday. "We had never been here before, but to see it is to love it."It wasn't the scenery, however, that first attracted Smith, 53, current provost at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, to the Utah job. It was the U.'s strong academic reputation.

"The University of Utah has a national reputation. It ranks very high among public and also private universities. It's rich in accomplishments," he said, noting top-flight programs in genetics, computer graphics and artificial organs.

Smith will assume the U. presidency by Sept. 1, replacing Chase N. Peterson. Peterson announced a year ago that he would step down in June 1991 following increasing controversy over such issues as cold fusion, the renaming of the medical school and administration-faculty relations.

Wednesday, when asked to assess the U.'s reputation in light of cold fusion, Smith said any mistakes made with cold fusion shouldn't chill the U.'s quest for knowledge.

"The cold-fusion experience had some unfortunate aspects, but it flowed from commitment, the entrepreneurial spirit that has characterized the growth and many of the successes of this university."In the entrepreneurial spirit, in the need to take risks, sometimes mistakes are made, but I don't think we should lose heart as the result of those mistakes. We shouldn't be intimidated in the commitment or quest for knowledge," Smith said.

Smith comes to the U. with a diverse background strong on academics. The new chief executive believes that it is his academic experience that landed him the Utah job.

"I have come through the academic ranks. I had tenured full professorships at two institutions and then nine months as an interim president," he said.

Smith has been provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of South Carolina since 1988. Before South Carolina, he was vice president for administration at State University of New York, Binghamton, and was also professor and chairman of political science.

He became South Carolina's acting president after James B. Holderman resigned in May 1990 amid criticism of his lavish spending practices.

Smith then was successful in clearing up a fiscal mismanagement problem and getting the athletic program off NCAA probation after a drug scandal.

He tried to restore the school's image, which suffered badly in Holderman's final years, improve relations with the media and stress accountability.

His biggest coup was bringing the school into the Southeastern Conference, one of the NCAA's top athletic leagues. South Carolina, which joins the SEC on July 1, had been in the Metro Conference.

Smith has no personal agenda for the U. yet. "I need to talk to the people. I need to spend some weeks and maybe a couple of months talking with faculty, deans, administrators, students, regents, trustees, community people, in order to get a sense of what is possible, what we can achieve, what the strengths are, where the best places for the investment of our resources are," he said.

He does believe that, in the days of dwindling state revenues for higher education, "we can't be all things to all people."

The new president regards the faculty as "the core of the university, the intellectual strength of the university."

A university president, he said, "is not only the chief executive officer of a multimillion-dollar enterprise, but is also, in a very real sense, the leader of the faculty and directly involved."

The faculty should be consulted not only on academic programs but "decisions that affect the future of the institution as a whole," he said.

He characterized his management style as "open, committed to consulting with people who are going to be affected by a decision. It makes the decisionmaking sometimes a little slower, but the results tend to be something that is more effective and people will support."