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Ron Mittelhammer: We see the benefits of Ruth Watkins’ stewardship. What about the costs?

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) From left, Emily Smiley, Mary Kate Cologna, Serena Madsen Caroline Anderson, Grace Mason and about 100 other University of Utah students walked out of classes Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in a show of solidarity to call attention for increased campus safety and protest the school's response after a student was murdered on campus in October 2018.

I found the commentary written by five chair emeriti of the University of Utah’s Board of Trustees, transparent in its attempt to stress the positives and ignore the negatives regarding Ruth Watkin’s stewardship, to be deeply disturbing and emblematic of continuing leadership problems plaguing the university.

See no failures, hear no failures, speak no failures.

I wish to provide some perspectives on the rest of the story relating to a critical part that was missing from the glowing account of accomplishment metrics attributed to Watkins. In short, claimed successes pale in comparison to the lack of accountability, responsibility and integrity she has shown.

The group of five prior trustee chairs point to what they view as a storied career at the U. to date in terms of a number of the standard university performance metrics by which administrators are evaluated. However, where was Watkins’ leadership and performance on the all-important student safety issues in the many years she was executive vice president and provost — i.e., second-in-command at the U. — prior to assuming the role of president?

It apparently took the brutal murder of Lauren McCluskey to get her attention focused on glaring deficiencies in providing for student’s safety and welfare and the ignoring of repeated contacts with campus police, student housing and student counseling about the growing threats and danger surrounding the fear-filled last two weeks of McCluskey’s life.

In has been a year since Watkins uttered the scripted and now fully discredited phrase there is no “reason to believe that this tragedy could have been prevented.” She has never recanted that indefensible statement, which is wholly inconsistent with the findings of a review of the situation commissioned by a committee hand-picked by the university itself.

Let me suggest what responsible and accountable leadership, marked by integrity, should have stated early in the evolution of this terrible tragedy:

“Under my watch as executive vice president and provost, and then as president, the University of Utah failed in multiple ways to design and employ appropriate policies, procedures and personnel that would ensure the highest levels of student safety on campus and, for that, I deeply apologize. I also apologize to the McCluskey family, on behalf of the university and myself, for the deep loss and enduring sorrow our failures have caused. I hold myself and the university accountable and responsible for these tragic shortcomings that contributed to Lauren’s death, and the university will do everything possible in the future to provide for the safety of its students, and to respect and address concerns expressed by students to any university staff or officials.”

Now that would have been an act of stewardship worthy of mention early in the trustees’ glowing commentary supporting Ruth Watkins.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Ron C. Mittelhammer

Ron Mittelhammer is a regents professor in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University. The opinions expressed are his own personal views, and not necessarily those of his employer.


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