Utah’s five female university presidents share their goals, differences and experiences with sexism

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State University President Noelle Cockett, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, Westminster College President Beth Dobkin, Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin and Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez.

When the moderator looked to her right, where Utah’s five female university presidents sat on a stage, she said: “This feels different than it would if it were five male college presidents. So there’s something we’ve got to dissect here.”

“What is it?” Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin asked with a hint of sarcasm and a bit of a laugh.

“Well, we have better jewelry,” joked Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University.

The presidents of Westminster College and Utah State University smiled and nodded their heads. And the president of the University of Utah grabbed the microphone.

“The weakest teams,” Ruth Watkins said, “are when we are all the same. That is a challenge to all of us as leaders.”

The audience of nearly 300 people at the Salt Lake Chamber’s Thursday forum on higher education swelled with support, cheering and clapping. Never before have as many of the state’s colleges been led by women. And this was the first panel on which all five of the female leaders talked together.

USU’s Noelle Cockett has led her school since 2016 and SLCC’s Huftalin since 2015. Over the past year, Huftalin joked, when Westminster, the U. and UVU all added their new presidents, “It felt like suddenly we were a new band, and we just dropped a new album.”

There’s been a lot of fanfare, she explained, over the group of leaders and their gender — for all except Huftalin and Westminster’s Bethami Dobkin, it’s the first time their institutions have been led by a woman. Huftalin acknowledges that and celebrates that. But she also cautioned the crowd not to let it be reductive to the individual and unique women, their accomplishments and their goals.

“There’s a ton of diversity in the female leadership,” she said. “And we never had a panel of the men leaders. They just were the panel.”

The other presidents clapped at her response. The lighthearted, hourlong event focused on the historic moment and how the leaders plan to work together, how they broke through gender barriers and how they plan to help more women finish their degrees and encourage them, too, to someday also lead universities.

But it also teased out the differences between the leaders, who now oversee half of the largest universities in Utah and 70 percent of the state’s college students. They represent a broad range of education experiences with a private school and a community college and a research institution among them.

Natalie Gochnour, the moderator, U.'s associate business school dean and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, asked each president to share her vision for her university. While each mentioned improved graduation rates and engagement among students, they all had separate goals that matched their school.

Tuminez at UVU, which has the highest student population in the state, said she wants to continue its popular open enrollment admissions policy that welcomes all applicants regardless of GPA or test scores. “Education should be absolutely nonprejudicial,” she said.

The U.'s Watkins said she wants to invest in more research, particularly health care, at the state’s flagship school while being mindful of rising costs for attendance. USU’s Cockett said she wants to, as a land-grant university, bolster the college’s agricultural programs. SLCC’s Huftalin said she wants to be inclusive and accessible as a community school where 56 percent of those enrolled are first-generation college students and 70 percent are working a job while taking classes.

Westminster’s Dobkin said she wants to embrace being a private liberal arts college while bringing together different disciplines, such as having chemistry majors participate in choir.

These five schools, she said, looking at the presidents around her, “provide a similar goal with very different kinds of learning experiences and environments.” And they’re all working on partnerships to combine different approaches — such as the U. and SLCC planning a new Herriman campus for those who have dropped out to re-enroll.

The event, which was held at the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, took place on a stage for the Alfred Hitchcock horror play, “Wait Until Dark.” Gochnour joked about “juxtaposing that with the inspirational set [of women] here.”

More serious moments during the conversation focused on the leaders’ individual financial struggles, brushes with sexism and doubts about their positions.

Dobkin spoke about when, years ago, she attended a black-tie event for the college she was working for at the time, and a colleague joked that he didn’t know where she’d put her nametag “with all that cleavage.” Tuminez talked about growing up poor in the Philippines and using lollipop wrappers to repair her shoes.

Watkins said when she first got to Utah in 2013 and started attending university events, people would come up to her and her husband and assumed he was the new provost. Cockett mentioned how, when she first took USU’s helm, she was supposed to give a lecture about being a woman in a leadership position; she ran out of things to say, she noted, and reverted to a previous talk she gave on world food security.

“I can tell you the people were pretty puzzled there on how I made that leap,” she said.

All of them said those experiences made them who they are today and have played a role in how they want to lead their universities. They talked about their plans to help women with child care and scholarships. They want all students to get flexible workforce training. And they hope things will be better for those coming after them.

Gochnour responded: “That’s a mark of female leadership — honesty.”