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Snow College President Scott Wyatt said Friday he's ready to tackle an enrollment decline related to Mormon missionary age changes and redefine the words "liberal arts" for Utah as the newly-chosen 16th president of Southern Utah University.

He replaces Michael Benson, who got a new job as president of Eastern Kentucky University in April. Wyatt took over leadership of Snow in 2007 — also after Benson vacated the president's office at the junior college.

Before entering academia, Wyatt, 52, was an attorney who served as a prosecutor for Cache County. He also represented Logan for two terms in the Utah Legislature, where he was a member of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

SUU, located in Cedar City, saw its student enrollment drop 6.65 percent this semester — the largest head count drop in the state system, and largely attributable to newly lowered age requirements for Mormon missionaries.

"We're going to fix that problem," said Wyatt, who dealt with the same issue at Snow, where about 90 percent of students are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Instead of potentially devastating declines, the small central Utah school posted a small gain due to aggressive recruiting of students, many from the Wasatch Front.

"SUU is going to grow and I have no doubt about that," Wyatt said.

He beat out a pool of three other finalists for the position, including SUU chief academic officer and provost Bradley Cook.

"It's only awkward if we choose to make it awkward," Wyatt said. "I've been in many different settings and worked with so many different people ... I have the utmost respect for Brad Cook and I look forward to spending time with him."

The other finalists were Lisa Rossbacher, president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga., and Don Capener, dean of the Davis College of Business at Jacksonville University in Florida. The finalists were picked by a 21-member committee and the regents made the final choice Friday.

"We are pleased with the caliber of the candidates who participated in this rigorous process," said Regents chair Bonnie Jean Beesley in a statement. "President Wyatt has expertly guided Snow College through enrollment and budget challenges to become a nationally ranked institution. We are confident that he will bring this same level of leadership to SUU and to the Utah System of Higher Education as a whole."

Wyatt will likely take over some time after the beginning of the year. He'll replace former higher education boss Richard Kendell, who has been serving as interim SUU president since July.

Snow College will join two other Utah institutions in search of new leaders after their presidents announced departures last month: Salt Lake Community College, where President Cynthia Bioteau will leave for Florida State College and Dixie State University, whose leader, Stephen Nadauld, will retire.

During his tenure, Benson worked to carve out a niche for the nearly 8,000-student institution as a public liberal arts school by strengthening its ties to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, as well as raising admission standards and hiring new faculty.

"While the school can continue to be that, we have a need to help educate the community about what a liberal arts university really is. It's not a hangout for Democrats throwing pots," Wyatt said. "It means a broad education and preparation for all kinds of future opportunities in life."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Southern Utah University's new president

Scott Wyatt, 52.

Education: Bachelor's degree in philosophy and economics from Utah State University; law degree from the University of Utah.

Legal career: Worked in private practice; also served as Cache County attorney from 1995 to 2002.

Political career: Two terms representing Logan in the Utah State Legislature.

Career in education: Chosen as Snow College's 15th president in July 2007. Former member and chair of Snow College Board of Trustees. As a student member, he served on the State Board of Regents and USU's Board of Trustees.

Source: Snow College