After student protest, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins says Lauren McCluskey’s murder ‘revealed problems’ on campus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Vogel, who coached Lauren McCluskey before she came to Utah, speaks during a vigil for McCluskey at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Oct. 22, 2019.

On the one-year anniversary of track star Lauren McCluskey’s murder and after continuing protests by students, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins on Tuesday made one of her strongest statements yet — acknowledging that the tragedy has “revealed problems” with safety on campus.

Her comment on Twitter is her first direct response to students after they walked out of class one day earlier in protest over how the school and its police force handled McCluskey’s case. And it comes, too, as many at the school have become more vocal about their concerns over the past few months, with rallies at a football game and an academic senate meeting, a public statement in opposition to the university and a vigil Tuesday night.

Before that, Watkins had said the school would implement the recommendations of an independent review to improve security after the slaying. But she had insisted that there was no “reason to believe this tragedy could’ve been prevented.” She has described “shortcomings” and “issues,” but has defended the police force and its actions.

She had never before said there were “problems” on campus; she also referred to a “transformation” underway. Several students noted that and said they felt the statement was a contradiction with her previous statements.

One pointed out her comments on Twitter and said “#WhatsTheTruthRuth.” Another commented, “Why would you need to transform or evolve campus culture if you deny any part or fault in the way you responded to [McCluskey]?”

Concerns with McCluskey’s death and the U.’s response to her earlier reports to campus police have continued over the last year. On Tuesday, as several mourned the loss on the anniversary, Watkins posted that McCluskey, her family and friends “are in my thoughts today.”

“This tragedy revealed problems at the U and we have worked to make meaningful changes to improve campus safety,” she continued. “There is more work to do and we welcome the participation of everyone on campus — our students especially — in this vital process.”

Chris Nelson, spokesman for the university, said her comments align with what the president has previously said.

“Missed opportunities and mistakes were made,” he added. “I don’t feel like she’s trying to say anything new. I think she’s just trying to say it a different way.”

Watkins originally posted her comments with a screenshot and a photo of McCluskey early Tuesday morning. A few minutes later, she deleted the tweet and reposted it with a slightly altered statement.

The first comments ended: “It is my sincere hope that part of Lauren’s legacy at the U will be a transformation that makes our campus as safe as it can be.”

The second version said: "As we continue this journey, we will always be remembering Lauren."

Nelson said that the draft went through a few edits and what was first posted was an outdated version. “That was just an editing error," he said, but then added: “It was an inaccurate statement. That’s why we deleted it and reposted.”

He also noted that even though the sentence on McCluskey’s legacy was removed, the university still believes that improving safety will be the best way to honor her. It is something McCluskey’s parents have called for since the beginning.

On Tuesday, Jill and Matt McCluskey responded to Watkins’ statement Tuesday in an email. They said: “We still mourn the loss of Lauren every day, especially today. We hope the University of Utah becomes a safer place as a result of our advocacy.”

The McCluskeys also supported the student protest Monday. More than 100 walked out of class to say that the university has not implemented the changes they would like to see — such as a student board to oversee campus police and cultural changes in the police department so that officers there respond better when women report concerns.

Watkins was at a conference in Washington, D.C., during the rally and posted the response on social media Tuesday morning.

“Your voices, your ideas and your help are needed,” she said. “I want everyone to feel safe on our campus and I know other university leaders share my concern. … Transformation of a campus culture is not an easy or quick process, but it is one to which we are fully committed.”

McCluskey, a 21-year-old track star, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm last October by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole, whom she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.

Before that, she and her friends had reached out more than 20 times to report that Rowland was harassing and stalking her. Those concerns were not taken seriously, independent investigators found.

The walkout was organized by a group of students who started the popular Instagram account “Unsafe U,” where many have been sharing their negative experiences with safety on campus as a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign, launched to improve security after McCluskey’s slaying.

The Unsafe U group has demanded a meeting with U. President Ruth Watkins. Nelson said the group hasn’t reached out to set that up yet. But he suggested Tuesday: “We need to do a better job at listening.”

“Lauren’s death was transformational,” he added. “It was tragic. And the university is not the same as it was a year ago. I think it’s a new era of the university in trying to move forward and applying these lessons as best as we can.”