University of Utah President Ruth Watkins is stepping down

She will be taking a position as president of Strada Impact.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins meets with students, including nursing graduate Caitlin Keenan, after commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 3, 2018, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. Watkins announced Tuesday, Jan 12, 2021 that she is stepping down and has accepted a post to lead Strada Impact, a national education program focused on getting students to complete college.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announced Tuesday that she is stepping down, capping her three-year tenure focused on improving graduation rates and expanding research at the state’s flagship school — but also dogged by questions about how student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s case was mishandled before and after her murder.

Watkins, who first took the helm of the university in April 2018, has served as the institution’s first female president. And her departure, set for the end of April, comes as a surprise now, happening shortly after a lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents was finally settled but while new issues have surfaced with the chief of police.

In a letter to campus, Watkins didn’t mention the case that has become tied to her legacy, though she did briefly acknowledge being proud of the “ongoing work to enhance safety,” including hiring a chief safety officer.

The president highlighted, too, her efforts to get the school admitted into the prestigious Association of American Universities and the “One U for Utah” fundraising campaign she launched last year. It collected $2 billion for ongoing research, including on the coronavirus pandemic.

She added that she has a “grateful heart” for her time at the U., including five years as the senior vice president for academic affairs. “I offer my deepest gratitude to all who have contributed to the U.’s vital work and success, and who have given me the opportunity to be part of this community,” she wrote.

Watkins will be leaving shortly before the end of spring semester to lead Strada Impact, a national education nonprofit that aims to help underserved students complete college. The organization, based in Indianapolis, already has her picture prominently displayed on its website. Watkins, who was making a salary of $722,902 without benefits, did not take questions following the announcement Tuesday.

Christian Gardner, chairman of the U.’s Board of Trustees, said he didn’t know whether the McCluskey case and continued criticism of how Watkins, in particular, responded to it had led her to resign. Watkins insisted shortly after the October 2018 murder that there wasn’t “any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented,” despite an independent report that flagged widespread problems.

But, Gardner said, the case definitely had an impact on the president overall. “The Lauren McCluskey murder was horrible and tragic,” Gardner said. “Ruth was deeply hurt. She was heartbroken. She still is.”

With her exit, the board of regents for the Utah System of Higher Education will be tasked with finding a new leader to oversee the sprawling U. campus of more than 33,000 students, amid challenges in education due to COVID-19.

The process of searching for and selecting a university president typically takes nine months to a year, said Dave Woolstenhulme, the system commissioner. It will be expedited, he added, as much as possible.

While that begins, Woolstenhulme will work immediately with Gardner and the university’s board of trustees to name an interim president who will take the helm until a permanent replacement can be selected.

Finding someone who can fill Watkins’ place, though, Woolstenhulme said, with the same fire and dedication and sense of humor, will be difficult.

“We tried to keep her,” he said. “We really did. We’re going to miss Ruth. She’s been a dear friend and a colleague. But when you’re as good as Ruth, people come knocking.”

‘Especially crucial’

In her new position at Strada Impact, Watkins will oversee research and policies that focus on getting more students to complete a college degree. A lot of that work will center on removing barriers that keep people from accessing higher education, such as race or economic status.

The organization also tries to connect graduates with jobs in their field.

“I believe the work of Strada Impact is more important today than ever before because completing college and securing employment will be especially crucial for millions of young Americans post-pandemic,” Watkins stated in her letter.

In many ways, the job will be a continuation of her efforts at the U. When she was inaugurated, Watkins set a goal to increase the six-year graduation rate of the university. When she first joined the staff as a senior vice president in 2013, 60% of students there were completing a degree, falling far below the school’s companion Pac-12 institutions, which average 80%.

Watkins moved the needle to 70% in 2019. It fell slightly again in 2020, to 67%, largely credited to the pandemic.

She launched several outreach initiatives, including targeted advising programs for freshmen, transfer students and women. The Women’s Enrollment Initiative didn’t last long — disbanded a year into Watkin’s tenure — but the efforts overall have been credited with improving graduation rates at the U. and the other two have continued on with success.

Additionally, Watkins created the For Utah Scholarship, which combines federal and state funds to pay for four years of tuition and fees at the U. for low-income students.

Her focus on graduation and getting students to “cross the degree finish line,” as she has put it, is what Watkins and those around her point to as the president’s single biggest accomplishment.

“That’s a difficult task, and she’s excelled at it,” said Gardner, noting it’s come with attention, too, on how to keep the U.’s tuition rate manageable. It’s currently the highest for public universities in the state, he acknowledged, at roughly $8,400 a year. But a hike this fall, for instance, was pushed off to help students stay enrolled during the pandemic.

Watkins has also worked to increase the diversity of those attending the university. And the school enrolled its most diverse freshman class this fall with 31% being students of color.

She expanded on-campus housing, too, and the football stadium on campus, added a building for the ski team and approved a new institute for mental health, funded by Utah’s prominent Huntsman family.

For Martha Bradley-Evans, the associate vice president for academic affairs and the dean of the undergraduate studies, another important achievement of Watkins’ was being the first woman to lead the flagship school. “It’s particularly meaningful to women,” Bradley-Evans said. “It’s just a huge deal. And she did it so well.”

Bradley-Evans said she’s pointed to Watkins as an example for her daughters and granddaughters, encouraging them: “You can be president of the university. Look, Ruth did it.”

Watkins has sometimes bristled at that label, not wanting her work to be defined by her gender. And she’s qualified it by pointing to Jerilyn McIntyre, who served as interim U. president twice, once in 1991 and again in 1997.

But on Tuesday, Watkins wrote in her letter that “a Utah woman I will always be,” a play off of the school’s song.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ruth Watkins, center, flashes the "U" sign with academic friends from Illinois, Sarah Mangelsdorf, left, and Robin Kaler before Watkins was inaugurated as the University of Utah's 16th president, and first female, at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

Conflict and tragedy

When Watkins first stepped into the leadership position, the historic moment was partially overshadowed by what had created the vacancy in the first place. Watkins succeeded former President David Pershing, who stepped down in 2017 after a major dispute involving the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The sudden firing of the institute’s director, Mary Beckerle, led to intense backlash from campus employees, faculty and the family of the late Jon Huntsman Sr., founder of the cancer center and one of the university’s most prominent benefactors.

The clash culminated in the reinstatement of Beckerle, the resignations of Pershing and U. Health Care CEO Vivian Lee, and the signing of a new memorandum of understanding between the U. and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Bradley-Evans said the new president succeeded in uniting campus by “creating a culture of caring.” But about a month after Watkins’ inauguration, she was faced with a new and bigger tragedy: the Oct. 22, 2018, death of a student-athlete.

Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old track star, was shot and killed outside her campus dorm by a man she had briefly dated.

An independent investigation found U.’s campus police did little to investigate McCluskey’s reports of harassment by the man and did not take her seriously, despite her calling multiple times.

When that report was released, Watkins stood by the police force, saying that no one would be disciplined for the missteps. That’s also when she insisted — in a statement that has since become a source of much contention — that nothing could have been done to prevent McCluskey’s death.

Missteps continued to be come light, though, in how the student-athlete’s case was handled both before and after her death. And other women, including victims and former officers, also came forward to share how they were mistreated by the campus police department.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins speaks during a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wed. Oct 24, 2018. McCluskey was killed on campus on Monday. Watkins announced Tuesday, Jan 12, 2021 that she is stepping down and has accepted a post to lead Strada Impact, a national education program focused on getting students to complete college.

“Lauren’s death wasn’t Watkins’ fault,” said Devon Cantwell, a graduate student and member of the Unsafe U group formed in response to how McCluskey’s case was bungled. “But the aftermath of it was.”

McCluskey’s parents filed a lawsuit against the university in June 2019. The U. responded by saying, in part, that it had no legal obligation to protect McCluskey from her attacker.

That led student government leaders at the U. to call out the school and Watkins for “statements made by the University of Utah that have been widely interpreted as victim-blaming.” More than 100 students walked out of class in protest, as well, shouting into a megaphone outside of Watkins’ office.

AnnaMarie Barnes, who was the student body president at the time, said it was “a really contentious year” and she often spoke directly to Watkins’ about student concerns. Despite the criticism, Barnes said, Watkins always listened.

“We were quite critical of her and her leadership,” Barnes added. “But she wasn’t concerned about her image. She was looking at the best way to move forward and improve.”

Watkins hired a chief safety officer, who has prioritized bringing student voices to the table.

Still, issues have persisted. Last year — nearly two years after McCluskey’s murder — the university confirmed that the officer assigned to investigate her concerns had showed off the explicit pictures she had sent him as part of her extortion case. When the school first found out about it, it did a cursory review. A new investigation showed the extent of what happened.

Then, a series of rapes occurred on campus. Those events led Unsafe U to call for Watkins’ resignation. “There is still significant deterioration of trust between the administration and students,” Cantwell said.

She is asking that the U. not hire anyone internally but rather choose a national candidate to help students move forward. She also wants students heavily involved in the process to interview candidates.

The school agreed to settle the case with McCluskey’s parents this fall on the two-year anniversary of her death. A large part of that hinged on Watkins admitting for the first time that mistakes were made and the death could have been prevented.

It seemed like the case was done, but then the new police chief was put on leave in December in connection with allegations of “criminal offenses” being review by the Utah attorney general’s office.

Jill McCluskey, McCluskey’s mom, said Tuesday that she wished Watkins the best in the future. “We plan to work with the new leadership at the U. to improve campus safety and hope to raise funds to build the indoor track facility for Lauren’s teammates,” she added.

‘With appreciation’

On Tuesday, people from around the state joined in wishing Watkins well as she leaves the University of Utah.

Dan Reed, the senior vice president of academic affairs — the position Watkins once held — said Watkins made “everyone on campus feel like a true partner.” Harriet Hopf, a professor of anesthesiology, thanked Watkins for her leadership and said she would be “sorely missed.” Athletic Director Mark Harlan said he appreciated how the president was “a tremendous advocate” for sports.

Several presidents at the other institutions in the state also shared their appreciation, including some of the four other women also leading the universities here. Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community, wrote: “I am personally grateful for her vision and partnership.”

Merry Joseph, a senior and an intern under Watkins this year, recalled meeting the president for the first time two years ago. Watkins, she said, remembered her name, major and the town she grew up in the next time they talked several weeks later.

“I never expected someone in that position to do that,” Joseph said. “She just shattered all expectations. She was so approachable and friendly.”

She was a mentor, too, to Alexander Becraft. Becraft is studying entrepreneurship at the U. and said Watkins helped him launch his startup, Well-Being Elevated. He choked up talking about her leaving, calling her “humble, kind and brilliant.”

Sheva Mozafari, who worked with Watkins as an intern and a student regent for the Utah System of Higher Education, recalled how important it was to the president to have students involved in her inauguration ceremony. Mozafari got to speak and said “that was very meaningful to me.”

“I think it was as much about students as her,” she said. “It really kicked off her career as president. And that was such a symbolic example of her leadership.”

Watkins first 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. With her new job, she’ll be returning closer to where she grew up in Elkador, Iowa, Gardner said. That has long been a big draw for her.

When she was appointed president of the U., Watkins had joked that she decided not to become a veterinarian after working off and on for her father on their family farm because of the amount of education and training involved.

“In the most amazing judgment of the time, I thought that was just going to be a lot of school,” she said at the time. “Then look what happened. I figured out how to never leave.”

She’ll continue with education in her new position, too, she said. But she won’t forget her last eight years at the U. She signed her letter Tuesday to the campus: “With appreciation.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ruth Watkins in the Park Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

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