Like many students she will soon oversee as University of Utah president, Ruth Watkins wasn’t sure what to study after high school.
“I was an undeclared college student,” she remembers, “and really had a little trouble finding what I wanted to do.”
Growing up in Elkador, Iowa — “a little, tiny town,” says Watkins — she worked off and on for her father, a large-animal veterinarian, but decided against it as a profession in part because of the amount of education and training involved.
“In the most amazing judgement of the time, I thought that was just going to be a lot of school,” the 56-year-old U. administrator said, shortly after being picked to head Utah’s flagship university. “Then look what happened. I figured out how to never leave.”
Encouraged by a professor, that Iowa student pursued research in the fields of speech pathology and child language. She took a job at the University of Texas at Dallas and then, in a 20-year stint at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, rose from associate professor to college dean.
In 2013, Watkins came to the Salt Lake City campus as the U.’s senior vice president over academic affairs, where she’s earned a reputation for being personable, collaborative and determined — someone with Utah experience who still has an outsider’s view.
When Utah’s Board of Regents unanimously chose her to replace outgoing President David Pershing as the U.’s 16th — and first female — president, the news drew an outburst of cheers and applause.
“When you looked around the room and saw the number of women and diverse persons with tears rolling down their cheeks, you felt the magnitude of this move and how broadly and deeply it impacted us,” Martha Bradley-Evans, a U. senior associate vice president, wrote in an email to The Tribune.
Bradley-Evans and other top U. executives and colleagues described Watkins as a school administrator of national caliber, with notable interpersonal skills, work ethic and a data-driven approach to problem solving. She comes to office hoping to expand access and inclusion for all students.
“She has a rare combination of superb intellect and extraordinary people skills that has really served the university well,” said Fred Esplin, the U.’s vice president for advancement.
With her start day as president now set for April 2, Watkins’ coming months will see not only her transition to 201 President’s Circle but also the hiring of a new leadership team. Both of the U.’s senior vice president positions are open after Watkins’ promotion and the April resignation of Vivian Lee, who oversaw health sciences and medical operations on campus.
A new president always launches a period of change on a university campus. But Watkins’ selection has the added air of history for women in Utah’s higher education system. That notion became clear, she said, at a U. basketball game the weekend after the Regents’ vote.
“There were a number of people I don’t yet know — moms and daughters — who wanted to have a picture taken with me,” Watkins said. “I now know that I cannot go out in gym clothes any more.”
An insider and outsider
In interviews, Watkins is conversational and congenial on academic topics, but comparably guarded on her personal life. She doesn’t dodge questions, but responds matter-of-factly without embellishment. She met her husband, Bob Young, at a gym. Their daughter, a speech pathologist, lives in Illinois.
“I’m very proud of her,” Watkins said. “She’s a great person.”
She alludes to some reticence on her husband’s part when the couple first made the move west in 2013, before adding that they have found the U. and Salt Lake City to be filled with wonderful people.
“Bob had never lived anywhere else than central Illinois,” she said. “We have been so warmly welcomed in this community and embraced and treated really, really well.”
Young declined to be interviewed for this story.
Esplin said Watkins made an immediate, positive impression when she arrived on the U. campus. She works tirelessly, he said, and is able to make difficult decisions in a charitable, collaborative way.
“Even when she’s on vacation she’s on email,” he said. “Doesn’t matter where she is.”
Bradley-Evans said Watkins is “comfortable in her own skin” and “has a wickedly funny sense of humor.” And in spite of her “insanely” busy schedule and daily challenges, “you feel heard, you feel valued, and many times you feel inspired,” she said.
While Watkins’ predecessor Pershing rose through the ranks in Salt Lake City over a long career, she has less than five years in the Beehive State. Esplin said that status as a relative newcomer is an asset, combining familiarity with the campus and state with a fresh perspective.
“Ruth Watkins has the benefit of being an insider and an outsider,” he said.
Barbara Snyder, the U.’s vice president for student affairs, agreed. Watkins was the obvious choice for president, Snyder said, among colleagues and others who have worked with her.
“I don’t consider her an internal candidate,” Snyder said. “I consider her a national candidate who happens to know a little bit about Utah, and that’s good for us.”
While echoing that Watkins is collaborative, Snyder notes that she is also incisive about it. When there’s a problem, she said, Watkins pulls the right people together to solve it.
“No histrionics, no drama, just work work work,” Snyder said. “She’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around.”
The U. campus saw high drama last spring, with the abrupt firing of Mary Beckerle, director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
The move triggered weeks of upheaval as university leaders traded verbal blows with the family of Utah industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr., one of the U.’s most prominent donors and founder of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Faculty members and staff were roiled in a series of heated meetings, protests and shouting matches with administrators.
The controversy eventually saw Beckerle reinstated; the signing of an new memorandum of understanding between the U. and cancer foundation; Lee’s resignation as senior vice president; and Pershing’s announcement that he would step down after a successor was selected.
Months later, Watkins says U. faculty morale is strong and she talks in terms of bringing disparate parts of the university community together. She described an “almost overwhelming” amount of goodwill since her selection and has set a goal of familiarizing herself with campus departments and employees she’s yet to work with directly.
“There are many people I need to meet and spend time with going forward,” she said.
Watkins said the U. is fortunate to have generous donors who support it. And the quality of applicants for top U. job openings reflects on the Salt Lake City school’s national standing and reputation.
“We never want to lose sight of the importance of the community of stakeholders that make this a great institution,” Watkins said. “The word is out. This is a great place to be and it’s a university very much on the rise.”
That personal approach and management style, in turn, will serve Watkins well in binding together and promoting Utah’s flagship school, colleagues predicted. Sylvia Torti, dean of the U. Honors College, said she excels as a communicator, with an “uncanny” ability to remember people’s names, interests and strengths.
“She’s an extremely good listener. That’s something you don’t always find in leader,” Torti said. “I don’t know how she does this, but she always zeroes in on people first and she doesn’t forget anything.”
Richard Brown, the U.’s dean of engineering, painted Watkins as “gifted” in people-to-people skills.
“She’s just a very likeable person,” said Brown. “You could see how much affection the community has for her at the regents meeting where her presidency was announced.”
A U. for everyone
When she’s inaugurated later this year, Watkins will be one of three female presidents in the Utah System of Higher Education, joining Noelle Cockett at Utah State University and Deneece Huftalin at Salt Lake Community College.
Of the five remaining Utah colleges and universities, two are in the process of finding new presidents.
Watkins said that kind rebalancing of genders among campus leadership is healthy, not least because it demonstrates that the state offers opportunities in higher education for everyone. But the U.’s own goals for diversity, she said, go beyond gender.
“It is important that the University of Utah, as a public research university, is everyone’s university,” Watkins said, “that we are a place where talented people from all backgrounds feel welcome and have the opportunity to succeed.”
Watkins said part of that support is widening access to the U.’s degree programs and enrollment, while also pinpointing ways to help more students complete their degrees.
“Access without people leaving with the degree they came for is a very hollow promise,” she said. “We have to think about how we can get people here and get them through their degree.”
That focus on breaking down the challenges that U. students face is something Watkins has shared with Pershing, a U. chemical engineering professor since 1977 who took the school’s helm in 2012.
In a written statement, Pershing credited Watkins’ leadership in helping to create a series of programs that immersed students in the learning process, boosted graduation rates and provided real-world experiences that lead to jobs.
“I am confident President Watkins will add and improve upon that shared vision,” Pershing said, “along with implementing her priorities.”
Watkins will be the first woman to take the U.’s top post full time. Jerilyn McIntyre, now a U. professor emeritus of communication, served as interim U. president twice, once in 1991 and again in 1997.
Yet the historic nature of Watkins selection shouldn’t distract from her impeccable credentials and qualifications, Torti said.
“It’s always nice when we break a barrier because then we can stop talking about it being a barrier,” she said. “On a national level, having a female president will go against what many people’s preconceived notions are of the State of Utah.”
Nonetheless, another colleague said that Watkins’ portrait will be a welcome addition to the hallways of the John R. Park building, home of the U.’s administrative offices.
“They’re wonderful portraits, but they’re all the same,” Esplin said. “This will be a new one.”
Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr., is owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.