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University Of Utah President Ruth Watkins Stepping Down, Leaving Mixed Legacy Behind

A photo of Ruth Watkins.
University of Utah
Ruth Watkins led the University of Utah for three years and is the first woman in the school’s 168-year history to hold the position.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins will be stepping down in April.

In a statement released Tuesday, Watkins said she is leaving the university after eight years to head up Strada Impact, the research and policy arm of a national organization focused on helping students attend and graduate from college and find jobs.

“We have achieved truly miraculous progress, building on foundations of excellence forged by previous generations at the U,” she wrote. “I am so proud of what we have accomplished and am eager to share our innovative, collaborative approaches with other institutions around the country.”

Watkins served for three years as the U’s president, the first woman to hold the position in the university’s 168-year history. Before that, she spent five years as the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs.

During her time at the university, six-year graduation rates rose from about 50% to over 70%, according to spokesman Chris Nelson. University officials noted donor contributions and research funding also increased significantly over the past three years, “Allowing the U to raise $2 billion three years ahead of a 2023 target date — and a record $603 million in sponsored research.”

“By almost every metric, our fundraising is up, college completion is up,” Nelson said. “And despite the pandemic, despite the changing landscape of higher ed, I think President Watkins leaves the university in a far better place than when she came.”

Her tenure, however, did not come without controversy. Student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s on-campus murder happened shortly after Watkins became president. The university has since enacted a number of reforms to improve campus safety, but also admitted it “mishandled” the case and has faced an ongoing battle rebuilding student trust with the administration.

In September, the student-run campus safety group UnsafeU called for Watkins’ resignation as well as the abolition of the campus police department.

“Certainly, this is part of her legacy,” Nelson said. “But we've come a really long way from in terms of looking at how the police operate and looking how that entire safety infrastructure goes.”

Devon Cantwell, a student at the university and UnsafeU organizer, said while Watkins had taken some positive steps towards improving campus safety, she hadn’t done enough to communicate transparently with students.

Cantwell said she hopes there will be a strong student presence when deciding who will replace the outgoing president. The Utah System of Higher Education is launching a national search immediately. Cantwell said the committee should include at least one graduate student and multiple students from the BIPOC community.

The selection of the university’s next president could be a make or break moment for student trust, she said.

“I think there needs to be over-communication in the selection process and, if anything, they need to overrepresent students on the selection committee,” she said. “I understand as an institution, there are bigger strategic goals that you need a president to have in mind. But I think the big crisis that we're seeing on our campus right now is this lack of institutional trust. They really need to be taking the student voices in this there seriously if we're going to have a successful transition to a new president.”

Cantwell said campus safety needs to be a core component of the next president’s agenda, as well as continued support for the newly-created McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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