Educating for Utah’s future means big changes at Utah State, new president says

President Betsy Cantwell announced she has hired two new members of her leadership team.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State University President Elizabeth Cantwell speaks during the Newsmaker Breakfast: The Value of Higher Education at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. Cantell announced two new leadership hires on Thursday.

Utah State University’s new president says she’s ready to make some changes.

Nearly seven months after she took the helm of the Logan university, Betsy Cantwell announced she hired two new members to her leadership team.

The leadership changes are part of Cantwell’s effort to ensure Utah State is not only prepared for the future, but also to make sure it’s serving the needs of all Utahns, both urban and rural.

John O’Neil will be Utah State’s vice president for operational strategy and special adviser to Cantwell and Kerri Davidson will be vice president of institutional affairs and the president’s chief of staff. The two come from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, respectively, and both start at USU on March 1.

Cantwell, who worked at Arizona State then Arizona before moving to Utah, said it’s just the start of the changes on the horizon both in Logan and at USU campuses across Utah.

“With six months under my belt as president,” Cantell wrote an email to Utah State employees on Thursday, “I have had a chance to consider the leadership structure I need to continue Utah State University’s trajectory of impact and excellence far into the future.”

On Wednesday, Cantwell told The Salt Lake Tribune there would be a “complete reorganization” of the university’s structure in the near future, as the number of people who report directly to Cantwell will decrease as management responsibilities are spread across university leadership.

Since taking over, Cantwell has said how she’s focused on not only the future of Utah State, but the Beehive State as a whole.

With USU’s designation as a land grant university — an institution that, according to the university, “provides research-based programs and resources for residents within their state” — comes the need and responsibility to focus on what benefits Utahns.

“Are we serving students the best? Are we doing the best both with either the technology we’re bringing to the table or should we be merging or growing our colleges,” Cantwell told the Tribune’s editorial board. “We haven’t examined our baseline degree structure for probably 20 years.”

Instead of using the land grant university moniker, Cantwell said it’s better to describe universities like USU as a “public service university.” She said the spirit of public service is what should drive research and academics at the university, and future changes should reflect that goal.

Cantwell arrived on campus after turbulent years at Utah State. In 2020, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found Utah State repeatedly mishandled sexual assault cases on campus. The university also faced numerous lawsuits over sexual assault, racism and other issues on campus.

But with those issues in the rearview, Cantwell says she’s focusing on what the university can do in the future to serve the state. In particular, the changes she wants to make focus on serving students and the public, especially rural Utahns, which is exactly what a land grant university should be doing, she said.

“How do we ensure that we are a viable land grant — meaning we are serving the state in the way we are supposed to — in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years? I actually really believe that mandate doesn’t go away,” Cantwell said. “We have to figure out how to serve (the public), meaning research, teaching and learning and community service.”