‘We have a duty to transform education for the 21st century’: University of Utah inaugurates Ruth Watkins, its first female president

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ruth Watkins addresses the crowd during her inauguration as the University of Utah's 16th president, and first female, at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

Every time someone mentioned it, the crowd cheered and clapped.

When David P. Gardner, a former president at the University of Utah, noted how Ruth Watkins would be the first female president in the school’s 168-year history. When H. David Burton, chair of the board of trustees, called it a “historic occasion.” When Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said five of the colleges in Utah are now being led by women, a first for the state.

When Watkins walked onto the stage.

“I am confident that we can work together to achieve even greater heights in our quest to make this one of the truly great public universities in the country,” she told the audience of more than 1,500 students and professors and others, who came to watch as she officially took the reins of the state’s flagship institution during her inauguration Friday.

A few wore T-shirts with her face and the words “Madame President.” One woman said she “wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Several made a “U” sign with their hands. Nearly everyone shouted and stood in ovation.

“Especially as a woman in higher education, it’s so exciting to see a woman leader,” said Madeline Rossman, an academic advisor in the school of business.

As the university’s 16th president, Watkins will oversee a sprawling campus of more than 33,000 students and 23,700 employees, with a top-tier medical complex, a competitive business school and a renowned natural history museum.

The incoming president has laid out a number of goals for the research institution. On Friday, she focused on pushing more students to “cross the degree finish line in a timely manner.”

“Our aim is simple: Every student who comes to the U. will have an exceptional educational experience — and complete their degrees.”

The university has a 6-year graduation rate of 67 percent, falling below its companion Pac-12 institutions, which average 80 percent. Watkins’ goal is to get the U. to 75 percent during her tenure.

To do that, she wants to expand online class offerings. She wants to create new learning communities for freshmen and transfer students. And she wants to offer more targeted guidance and advising services.

She also unveiled a new plan, called the Income Share Program, that aims to make education more affordable. It’s starting with donor investments and institutional funds, but Watkins sees it shifting into an account where scholarships for current students are paid for by former students.

“Our vision,” she said, “is a self-perpetuating fund that students who graduate will contribute to, ensuring the success of those who follow and those who follow them and the next round of students and so on.”

Watkins compared it to the G.I. Bill, instituted in 1944 to help veterans pay for college, graduate school and training programs — which her father used for his education. Because of that assistance, both of her parents earned degrees. She said that played an immense role in her life and opportunities.

“I believe we have a duty to transform education for the 21st century in the same way,” she said.

She faces challenges in enrollment — and financial aid is likely a part of that. The school has the most expensive tuition of any public university in Utah.

The U. has recently seen some slowing in its growth, with an increase of about 600 students over the last two years. Meanwhile, Utah Valley University in Orem has ballooned to a total of 37,000, outpacing the U. as the largest college in the state.

UVU president Astrid Tuminez, who took office this week and is also her school’s first female leader, sat in the audience at Watkins’ inauguration. Deneece Huftalin, the second woman to serve as president of Salt Lake Community College, welcomed Watkins on stage.

“We are united in our care and compassion for students and learning,” Huftalin said.

And she read a statement from Noelle Cockett, the president of Utah State University, which said: “I’ll need to put on my running shoes to keep up with President Watkins.”

Sitting there, too, was Jerilyn McIntyre, who served as the U.’s interim president twice but never formally held the title. Watkins called her out with thanks and appreciation.

The audience hollered and continued louder still when Gardner, the 10th president of the U. and now president emeritus of the University of California, added, “The passage of time going forth will take little account of President Watkins’ gender but will focus almost entirely on her accomplishments and contributions.”

Watkins plans to add more diversity to the school’s staff (currently, 74 percent are white). She intends to support researchers to do more groundbreaking work in science and health. She wants to continue expanding campus and updating buildings (19 percent are considered in need of serious repair or replacement). She believes the school and its students can solve “some of the most pressing problems of our time.”

During the hourlong program, speakers described Watkins as warm and compassionate, dedicated and personable, hardworking and energetic. David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said she was the “exceptionally clear choice for the job.”

He described an article about the characteristics of the ideal university president: Flexible, willing to do things differently, focused on sustainability and able to communicate effectively. The story, he said, might as well have had Watkins’ picture as an example.

As Watkins walked down to her inauguration at Kingsbury Hall — where a line of waiting people wrapped around the building — from her office at the top of Presidents Circle, she was swarmed by friends and faculty who wanted to greet her, hug her and shake her hand. Most were dressed in the school’s signature bright red, with blazers and dresses and ties all in the color.

Jill Stephenson, an academic advisor in the Division of Public Health, wore one of the “Madame President” shirts. She completed her master’s degree in public administration in December and did her research project on women in leadership roles at the U. A month later, Watkins was chosen to lead the university.

“It was life-changing,” Stephenson said. She got there at 2 p.m., an hour before the event started, and was No. 6 in line to see Watkins speak.

Harris Simmons, chair of the Utah Board of Regents, which voted unanimously in January for Watkins to lead the school, presented her with her presidential medallion and a pillow that said “A Utah Woman Am I,” a play on the school’s fight song. Its lyrics said “A Utah Man Am I” before it was changed in 2014 to man/fan, to be more inclusive.

“I recognize how deeply fortunate I am to be leading the U. at this moment in its history," Watkins said.

Watkins, who started in the post in April, described how she wants the university to be of Utah and for Utah. She succeeds David Pershing, who stepped down last year after upheaval and controversy involving the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He had served in the position since 2012 and has returned as a faculty member.

Watkins moved up from her post as the senior vice president for academic affairs. She came to the U. in 2013 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds several degrees in the field of child language and speech pathology from schools in the Midwest.

Watkins will lead a university where women are the minority in both students — 47 percent — and staff — 34 percent. In her speech, she acknowledged the past 15 presidents with a nod to their accomplishments but a promise to improve on representation.

“It is a tribute to each of my predecessors’ vision and leadership that I take over a university that has never been stronger,” she said. “And yet, there is so much more we can do.”