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Commentary: University of Utah benefits from the stewardship of Ruth Watkins

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Ruth Watkins, the University of Utah President, thanks the Huntsman family for their $150 million gift to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute to bolster the existing University Neuropsychiatric Institute and psychiatry department, Nov. 4, 2019.

Over the past months, a number of significant accomplishments at the University of Utah have received scant public attention. Perhaps, this is to be expected in these discordant times where good news often loses out to the sensational or negative. But, as former chairs of the University’s Board of Trustees, we are grateful for the current stewardship of President Ruth Watkins and the notable progress that has been made in many key areas under her leadership.

From our own experience, we know that Watkins is building on the arc of progress of her predecessors, and her own contributions have made the difference in many of these areas. The following are just some of the ways President Watkins has made the university a better place.

First and foremost, for at least 25 years, gaining admittance to the prestigious Association of American Universities has been at the top of the university’s yearly aspirations. In November of this year, that dream became a reality when the U. was invited to join the AAU, along with Dartmouth and the University of California Santa Cruz, the first additions to this elite organization since 2012. There are only 65 members of the AAU and the U.’s inclusion is a recognition that it belongs among the nation’s best universities, which include Harvard, Yale and the University of Michigan, among others. (See The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial, “What is good for the U. is good for Utah.”)

Membership in the AAU is not just ornamental. It requires a significant majority vote by the member institutions and is based on measurable accomplishments in scholarship, external funding for research, how knowledge generated at the U. is used and student success. This membership benefits the university in attracting both undergraduate and graduate students, recruiting and retaining the highest caliber faculty and involving the university in national discussions and projects. Watkins and her team should get credit for helping the U cross this important finish line.

Second, under Watkins’ leadership, both as senior vice president for academic affairs and now as president, the university has seen a significant increase in student efficiency and success. The U. has increased its six-year graduation rate over the past five years from 60% percent to 70%. And its first-year retention rate now exceeds 90 percent, among the best nationally and a factor in its AAU membership.

Third, Watkins is a tireless ambassador for the university, present at countless events and meetings where she explains the university’s important role both in this state and beyond. She wins friends in the Legislature, among other state institutions and with donors.

President Watkins has continued to engage the crucial support of the university’s stakeholders, whose generosity has resulted in the current capital campaign exceeding $1.5 billion in donations, well on its way to an unprecedented goal of $2 billion, ensuring education excellence and the long-term vitality of the state’s flagship university.

Fourth, the recent $150 million donation by the Huntsman family to research and treat mental illness will change countless lives for the better. This gift shows confidence in Watkins and her ability to unify and further the mission of health sciences and ensure that the university plays a vital role in addressing one of our most significant societal issues.

Finally, in the wake of recent tragedies, Watkins has implemented 68 of the 69 recommendations of the independent review team she commissioned, adding personnel, improving infrastructure, best practices, campus awareness and response to daily incidents to magnify campus security. Instilling a culture of safety and respect for others is a long term undertaking and we believe Watkins is well suited to accomplish that important objective.

We are grateful that the state’s flagship research university is in such good hands.

James S. Jardine was chair of the University of Utah Board of Trustees from 1989 to 1999, H.E. “Bud” Scruggs from 1999 to 2001, James L. Macfarlane from 2001 to 2007, Randy L. Dryer from 2007 to 2011 and Clark Ivory from 2011 to 2014.

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