Robert Gehrke: For the University of Utah to come to terms with Lauren McCluskey’s killing, President Ruth Watkins has to step up

Robert Gehrke

Last week was, by most measures, a banner celebration for the University of Utah.

The school announced a landmark scholarship program, promising full tuition to low-income freshmen with at least at 3.2 GPA, which will put a college education in reach for thousands.

A major mental health initiative was announced, with the backing of $150 million from the Huntsman family, that will fuel research and hopefully help Utah bend the curve on suicide in the state.

The U. got invited to an elite academic association.

And the football team has climbed to No. 8 in the country — trivial in the grander scheme, but still pretty cool.

Despite all of that, since Lauren McCluskey was killed on campus more than a year ago there has been a cloud hanging over the university it hasn’t been able to shake.

Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, the hierarchy at the university — beginning at the very top, with President Ruth Watkins — have been unwilling to do what needs to be done to resolve the situation and clear the air.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know Watkins, but I am a fan. When she was named as the university’s new president nearly two years ago, I was delighted. Her reputation was golden. Everyone I talked to described her as having a sharp mind and visionary leadership.

On top of that, appointing a woman to lead the university was long overdue. As a graduate of the school, it was a big deal.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a fan and wanted her to succeed, I’ve resisted criticizing Watkins directly for the way the school handled the tragic and avoidable death of McCluskey.

It wasn’t Watkins who disregarded Lauren’s pleas for help. The university president isn’t personally accountable for each student’s safety. That is the duty of the campus police, who proved to be an abject failure.

Now, thanks to the exhaustively reported piece by my colleague Courtney Tanner, we have a better understanding of why that was. Tanner documented a toxic culture that permeated the campus police department under Chief Dale Brophy for more than a decade.

It showed how university police officers asked probing, skeptical questions of women who had reported being sexually assaulted; they neglected domestic violence cases; failed to respond in a meaningful manner to reports of stalking; and doctored report logs to downplay domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

It’s not pretty. It’s a culture that existed before Brophy was hired and festered during his tenure, before Watkins was ever named president.

So how is any of this her fault?

Despite extensive warning signs and repeated attempts by McCluskey and her friends to get help, after an investigation into her slaying, Watkins declared that nothing could have prevented the incident — which simply is not true.

And if she didn’t know of the problematic culture of the department, she should have, but stuck with Brophy for nearly a year after McCluskey was killed, saying he had “the ability, the talent and the commitment” to reform the department.

It is symptomatic of a larger problem — a failure by Watkins to take command of the situation and lead her university.

When media outlets want an interview about the McCluskey matter, she sends her subordinates.

When the university’s Academic Senate recently had questions, she instead gave them a 10-minute speech, took two questions, and headed for the exit.

When concerned students rallied on campus and marched to Watkins’ office on Presidents Circle, she sent a subordinate to meet them with a prepared statement about how seriously she takes student safety.

And I don’t doubt that she does.

But the leadership vacuum hasn’t just left the situation unresolved. It has allowed it to metastasize, to the point that, even if the university attempts to do the right thing and take constructive steps toward student safety, the administration has lost its credibility and the trust of the students.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Watkins personally went to Washington state to represent the university at McCluskey’s funeral.

Before the university released the investigation into McCluskey’s slaying, Watkins went back and visited her family to let them know what the report recommended.

Perhaps it is bad advice from the public relations firm the university hired. Or maybe the McCluskey family’s lawsuit has prompted the change in tactics, as it often does. To be sure, Watkins has an obligation to look out for the school’s financial interests.

But she also has an obligation to look out for the school’s reputation. She didn’t create the problem, but now it is hers to repair, and the longer this cloud hangs over the university, the darker it grows and the harder it will be to repair the damage.

At this point, Watkins should acknowledge the university’s shortcomings and work directly with the McCluskey family to both resolve the lawsuit and establish a credible initiative on student safety that will be a lasting legacy for Lauren.

It sounds like a big task and it won’t happen without committed leadership. But I still believe that Watkins is a capable leader. If, however, she is unwilling to lead and this cloud persists, then perhaps the university trustees will be forced to find a president who is.

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