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Ex-Ute Y. chief now sees purple

Samuelson urges fans of 2 schools to ease rancor

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An analogy provides two insights into Cecil Samuelson's life since he became the 12th president of Brigham Young University.

First, it is an understatement to say he has been subjected to abundant questions about leaving behind 61 years as a Ute — he was born and raised a University of Utah man because his father was a professor there.

Second, he's given his responses a lot of thought.

The analogy Samuelson uses is about an LDS Church congregation that grows so large it is divided in two. One result of the split is that men who have worked together and helped each other for years soon find themselves on opposite sides in church basketball games.

"Some of those rivalries are the most intense, yet everyone is still best friends," Samuelson said Tuesday after speaking to the Salt Lake Rotary Club.

The message was clear: Fans of the church-owned school and the state-owned school can and should respect each other and even — gasp — be able to get along. The comparison is aimed directly at his Ute friends and wary BYU employees who express disbelief that he can successfully straddle the state's biggest rivalry.

He's thought about it enough to make it a major subject of his first off-campus speaking engagement since taking over at BYU on May 1 for Merrill Bateman. His off-the-cuff remarks in front of longtime friends — he was a 10-year member of the Salt Lake Rotary Club — included jokes, like the one about his past in the Ute booster organization: "They've never had a president of BYU before who was a founding member of the Crimson Club."

But Samuelson knows that behind the questions, which continued during a question-and-answer period after his remarks, are some real concerns. One is the divisive nature of the rivalry.

"I've been surprised by the intensity of the feelings of the frantic or fanatic few who are not concerned with what goes on at the university in general but only with what happens with athletics," he said.

Samuelson seems positioned — and determined — to bridge the gap between the schools, even if as a former U. vice president, dean and professor, he, like his Ute friends, is still trying to embody both sides.

"They come up to me," Samuelson said, "and say, 'How is BYU really? We're good friends. I won't tell anyone.' I can tell you publicly what I tell them privately. It's wonderful. Really."

It's as if Samuelson is taking up a torch lit by former BYU football coach LaVell Edwards, whose friendship with then-Utah coach Ron McBride earned respect for Edwards.

Of course, even the avuncular Edwards was criticized by some BYU fans for appearing with his Utah "buddy" in TV commercials that poked fun at Utah's back-to-back 34-31 victories during the 1990s.

Samuelson said he hopes the BYU and Utah football teams are undefeated when they play in November: "That would mean both are going to bowl games and both will be helped by playing each other."

Another underlying issue, the religious versus the secular, was raised by Linda Bonar, an executive with a nonprofit organization, during a question-and-answer session. She asked whether academic freedom truly exists at BYU, where faculty and students are asked not to criticize church doctrine or leaders.

Samuelson noted that freedom of expression is basically restricted at Duke University, where he did his medical residency, because discussions about religion are frowned upon as politically incorrect. Those same discussions are encouraged at BYU.

"Do we invite people to come deride the basic doctrines of the church? No, we don't," he said. "But I find it to be an open, honest atmosphere, and I don't see people afraid of questions."

He said professors do need to be concerned about criticizing church leaders on church issues — Samuelson is a member of the church's Presidency of the Seventy — but said that "in terms of inquiry, I think BYU is a very healthy place."

"It was a partial answer," Bonar said afterward. "It makes perfect sense to me that if it's a faith-based university it has the right to impose restrictions and have faculty adhere to some standards. It also makes sense to me not to restrict freedom of expression."

She thinks the new president is sympathetic to her viewpoint.

"Dr. Samuelson had a reputation at the U. for being open-minded and tolerant," she said.

After six weeks on the job and one speaking engagement among friends, it looks like those are qualities that would serve him well.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com