Tribune editorial: University of Utah’s pick for president is our good fortune

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ruth Watkins speaks to members of the media after being introduced as the new president of the University of Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, January 18, 2018. Once her appointment is finalized, she will be the first female president of the state's flagship campus.

In 1989, Ruth Watkins completed her graduate work in child language/speech-language pathology at the University of Kansas. Less than 20 years later, she was overseeing 600 faculty members as dean of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Wherever Watkins thought she was headed when she finished her studies, everyone now knows that she was destined to run a university. So it is our good fortune that her destiny also brought her here, to the University of Utah, at this important juncture.

As a U. senior vice president for almost five years, Watkins knows the turf. The flagship of Utah education, the U. is arguably the most important economic and cultural institution in the state, producing fruit today and planting seeds for tomorrow. It is also a massive entanglement of 32,000 students and 25,000 employees in hundreds of roots and branches.

In that, Watkins sees one organism.

Shortly after she took the job at the University of Utah in 2013, she set up the Transformative Excellence Program, a faculty-hiring initiative to find scholars who could jump across those branches. The program identified “clusters” of cross-disciplinary opportunities, areas like “Digital Humanities,” and “Society, Water and Climate.”

That is at the heart of Watkins’ approach. She wants to break down the silos on campus to generate new scholarship. Her unassuming Midwestern demeanor serves her well in creating collaboration in a demanding intellectual environment where egos can swim like sharks.

She still has a learning curve. For starters, she’s never run a medical school and hospital system, and that is not something that can be delegated. One of her first tasks is to fill the position of Health Sciences vice president so the university can continue to lead in both research and clinical medicine.

Beyond that, she’ll face the challenges of finding money in a state that has always believed in education but has never funded it adequately. Watkins has shown herself adept at managing the expectations of her bosses in state government. She also has cultivated strong relationships with donors, whose contributions are key components in attracting top faculty and the millions in research dollars that come with them.

This is the first time the Utah Board of Regents has chosen a woman as U. president. That is historic indeed, but not nearly as important as the woman they’ve chosen. Here’s to the dawning of the Watkins era.