Mickey Gallivan: How could we have let Ruth Watkins go?

University of Utah president did so much for the state. And we blew it.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) 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.

President Ruth Watkins leaving our University of Utah community is a terrible loss that will rob from us a positive momentum not seen in years in Utah higher education. Ruth is that good.

And we blew it.

In less than three years, this U. president has dramatically shortened the average matriculation time for our graduates and made huge strides in graduation rates. She gained acceptance of the U. of U. into the prestigious Association of American Universities at the same time invitations went out to the University of California and Dartmouth.

Her focus on expanding research opportunities has landed unmatched outside investments enabling business innovation, student opportunities, jobs, futures. Ruth’s ability to attract excellence in senior vice presidents has revolutionized academic opportunity and catapulted University Health Care to the top of the nation. How could we let her leave?

Despite this incredible identity with excellence in what a university can be, Ruth got swallowed by the scandal surrounding the tragic murder of student Lauren McCluskey. It was an awful circumstance of incompetence of the university’s police system, which subsequently Ruth has replaced with a thorough campus safety reorganization, including changes in student safety protection and awareness. However, she was never able to get past the unfortunate initial response of the university, designed by the lawyers and a fearful public relations staff.

Reporting on the first round of the investigation, the institutional protection system had Ruth respond publicly with the ill-advised statement that there wasn’t “any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.” That statement proved to be obviously absurd when the details of the police mistakes became public. Multiple pleas for help from Lauren went wholly ignored by a number of officers until it was too late. At the very beginning, all the university had to say was, “We made huge mistakes.”

That unfortunate opening statement has been used to lay the blame for this student murder on President Ruth Watkins. She was not allowed to move beyond it, no matter the extent of the reorganization of safety on campus, no matter the drawn-out settlement with Lauren’s family, no matter Ruth’s attention to demonstrating the university’s regret, no matter the proactive positive changes. A relentless and judgmental Salt Lake Tribune would not let the initial stupid reaction go away or allow it to be understood or forgiven. A way-overboard columnist suggested resignation. A timid Board of Higher Education, nee Board of Regents, failed in their own responsibility to stand up for and protect this treasure they knew was the best thing to happen to the University of Utah in recent memory.

Understandably, the undeserved blame, the isolation, the diversion from the recognition of real accomplishment has taken a toll. No wonder the conclusion came to be, “Why bother?”

Godspeed, President Ruth Watkins. You gave us gifts that will benefit generations.

And we blew it.

Mickey Gallivan

Mickey Gallivan is a Salt Lake City native whose career included advertising, journalism, tourism marketing, Olympic bid pursuits and several voluntary advisory boards at the University of Utah.

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