University of Utah President Ruth Watkins knew that leading the state’s flagship institution would be difficult — but after three years on the job, she said last week, it turned out to be much harder than she expected.
A large part of the difficulty came with responding to student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s 2018 murder, she acknowledged. And it was one of “the elements” she considered that ultimately led her to announce she would be stepping down at the end of April.
“Certainly, you know it will be tough. But you don’t really know just how tough until you’re in it,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board. McCluskey’s case, she added, was “a complicated challenge.”
When she leaves, Watkins will have been in the leadership role for just three years — one of the shorter presidential tenures for the U. in recent history.
An interim president is expected to be in place before Watkins departs, selected by the Board of Regents over the Utah System of Higher Education. Dan Reed, the current senior vice president of academic affairs, and Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health, are considered likely candidates for that temporary role.
The interim president could also be a prominent dean within the university; that has occurred previously when the position has been open.
For finding a permanent new leader, the Board of Regents already has approved hiring a national firm to help guide the process. The board will announce members of its search committee by the end of the month.
A new president could be selected by September at the earliest, said Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner of higher education for Utah, but would likely start work in 2022.
Watkins’ conversation with the Tribune editorial board was one of the first times she had answered questions about her decision to leave the U. She is taking a position leading Strada Impact, a national nonprofit that aims to help underserved students complete college.
Prior to taking on that position, she served for five years in the administration as the senior vice president of academic affairs. Combined with her presidency, she said, she thinks of her leadership as one eight-year experience.”
Beyond continuing issues related to McCluskey’s case, the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in her decision, Watkins added, by nudging her to want to live closer to family. And the job with Strada, she said, will allow her to spread farther the lessons she has learned at the U. about removing barriers that keep people from accessing higher education.
‘Work that has to keep going’
McCluskey’s slaying, which has come to define at least part of Watkins’ legacy, occurred about six months into her first year as president.
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was shot and killed outside her dorm in October 2018 by a man she had briefly dated. She had tried to report her concerns about the man to campus police several times in the weeks before her death, but a later independent review found she was not taken seriously.
When that report came out, Watkins drew fire for concluding that there wasn’t “any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.” And as more missteps have come to light, the case has continued to plague her administration. Just weeks ago, concerns about the timing of accreditation in Utah for the newly hired campus police chief led to the university placing him on administrative leave.
She did not linger on the case with The Tribune’s editorial board, but said navigating it was “complex.” Watkins has not often talked publicly about it. She retracted her statement that McCluskey’s murder couldn’t have been prevented in a legal settlement with the student-athlete’s family.
On whether it contributed to her leaving, she said: “Of course, those are the elements one considers.”
But she added, too, that she has worked to make many improvement to campus safety in the aftermath, including hiring a chief safety officer and a domestic violence advocate, consolidating night classes and launching a new campus ride-share system.
“This is not something you can ever tidy up with a bow and say, ‘This is done,’” Watkins said. “This is work that has to keep going.”
Other motivations to leave
In addition to McCluskey’s case, a large draw for her leaving the U., she added, was to be closer to family. She grew up in Elkador, Iowa. She came to Utah in 2013 after working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She said it’s bittersweet, but she’s looking forward to “nothing but cornfields” in between her and her family. With Strada Impact, Watkins will be based in Indianapolis, Ind.
The COVID-19 pandemic, she added, was also a part of the decision. It led her to “think a little bit about what you’re doing with yourself and your time.”
One of the most important aspects of being president at the U., Watkins said, was working on college completion — getting students not just to enter school but to get a degree. When she first joined the staff as a senior vice president, 60% of students there were completing a degree, falling far below the university’s companion Pac-12 institutions, which average 80%.
Watkins helped move the needle to 70% in 2019.
Her efforts to create 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, contributed to the rise.
“That has dramatically opened the doors for a much more diverse student base at the U.,” said Reed, the U. senior vice president of academic affairs, who joined the discussion with The Tribune’s editorial board.
And at Strada Impact, improving graduation rates through similar initiatives will be Watkins’ main focus. There, she will join her former U. colleague Courtney McBeth, who is now senior vice president of the nonprofit. A lot of that work will center on eliminating hurdles that can block students from higher education, such as those related to race or economic status. Watkins said she intends to “help more institutions learn from what we’ve done at the U.”
She also counts among her achievements getting the school accepted into the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU). And she points, too, to doubling the amount donated for research at the U. to now $600 million a year.
Reed said “there’s a long list” of Watkins’ accomplishments. Both he and Good, University of Utah Health CEO, said she created a culture where success “trickles down.”
“She made people feel valued,” Reed added. “She brought us together. We’re not only partners; we’re friends.”
What’s next for the U.
Watkins said that after her tenure, she believes the U. is well-positioned to attract a successful national candidate as the next president. And she’d personally like to see someone in the position who can “continue this upward trajectory.”
“You want to make the U. a big national stage where really remarkable leaders can come,” she said. “You want the University of Utah to be competitive at a national level.”
The next president, she added, should be able to set up the school to succeed nationally, to do groundbreaking research and to have a presence with the AAU. They should be able to “inspire and motivate.” Students should want to come here. And faculty should be able to achieve.
Additionally, the ideal candidate, Watkins said, will collaborate with other universities in the state, including ongoing partnerships with Salt Lake Community College.
“Certainly,” she said, “there are many responsibilities and challenges as part of the role, but that’s also part of the privilege.”
The U.’s timeline
It will likely take several months or even a year to find the right person to lead the state’s flagship institution. The Board of Regents, which oversees Utah’s eight public colleges, will be in charge, including vetting the finalists.
Here’s what that timeline looks like:
• Jan. 12: Watkins released a letter to the U. community announcing her departure.
• Jan. 15: The Board of Regents approved hiring a national firm to help guide the process for finding a new president.
• End of January: The board will announce members of its presidential search committee. It will include faculty at the U. as well as students. And there will be alumni, staff from other colleges in the state and likely an administrator who has worked with Watkins. It will be co-chaired by a member of the Board of Regents and a member of the U.’s Board of Trustees.
• February: The search committee will meet for the first time. It is tasked with creating a job description for the position and approving the application form.
• April: Watkins has not named a specific date that she’ll be leaving, but the Board of Regents will not have a new permanent president selected by then.
Instead, members will work with the U.’s Board of Trustees to pick someone who can serve in the interim. The temporary leader will likely be named in early April so he or she can shadow Watkins for a short time before she steps down.
Whoever is named as the interim leader may offer a clue about who is not in the running to be president — the person who fills in is typically not someone who wants to apply for the position.
• Probably June or July: The application for a new president will likely be active for a few months until there’s a strong pool of candidates. The hope is to attract national applicants.
“We feel like we’ll get some really great people,” Woolstenhulme said.
Once the search committee feels it has enough options, it will close the application and conduct interviews. It will narrow the options to about three finalists.
• Around August: Those finalists will be announced publicly, and there will be open meetings for community members to weigh in.
• September, at the earliest: The search committee will vote by secret ballot on the three finalists. The candidate with the most votes will move forward.
That person’s name will go to the full Board of Regents to consider. Board members can accept or reject the selection. If they accept, the new president is announced and the position is offered. If the name is rejected, though, the process starts over.
This would be about nine months after Watkins announced she was leaving. That’s the earliest a new president could be named, Woolstenhulme said.
The hope is to expedite the process, he said, but he added that “the last thing we want to do is rush it to where we don’t do our due diligence. ... This position is so critical for the state of Utah.”
The process could take up to a year, he said, which would put a selection in January 2022.
• By 2022: It will take some time for the new president to take the post. If the person is coming from another university, he or she will have to put in notice there.
The hope is that the president will start leading in early 2022, with a formal inauguration ceremony scheduled for a few months later.