Tribune Editorial: How Watkins and the U. can move on

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins

Ruth Watkins is fully capable of lifting the clouds of despair and mistrust that now hang over the University of Utah.

But first, the president of Utah’s flagship university must, to paraphrase that nasty character in “Henry VI,” get rid of all the lawyers.

And the University Police Department.

It has been not quite a year since 21-year-old U. freshman Lauren McCluskey was murdered just outside her dorm on the U. campus, killed by a former boyfriend who himself died by suicide before the night was over.

Even since, the university’s many official memorials and statements of consolation and tribute have rung hollow to many, including McCluskey’s family and other U. students, because the school’s official response to concern, criticism and, now, a lawsuit over how university personnel handled Lauren’s many cries for help has felt not so much sincere as lawyerly.

A statement from Watkins after a review of the events leading to McCluskey’s murder — "The report does not offer any reason to believe that this tragedy could have been prevented” — has been met with astonishment and anger from people in the U. community and beyond.

It is also a statement that is not really supported by the review from outside professionals, as it is replete with points at which Lauren’s outreach to U. housing managers, the University Police Department and the Salt Lake City Police Department fell into bureaucratic gaps or were just not taken seriously.

The fact that Lauren’s killer was a criminal on probation, who would have been sent back to prison if someone with the proper clearance had looked up his status after his victim’s first report, suggests a massive system failure.

Watkins’ claim is also belied by the fact that, since then, the university’s police chief has retired, one of the officers involved in the case was fired and another left the department.

More recently, the university’s — actually, the Utah Attorney General’s — official response to the lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents has also been reasonably interpreted as craven lawyer-speak for, “It wasn’t our fault.”

The claim that the U. couldn’t be held legally liable for failing to protect one of its students from someone who wasn’t another student or university employee has reasonably been denounced by many, including an official resolution passed by the Associated Students of the University of Utah, as having the ring of blaming the victim.

It is understandable that the lawyers involved are trying to protect the university from expensive legal liability. Expensive as in the $56 million the McCluskey family is seeking in their lawsuit. Money that may reasonably be owed, but not fairly the responsibility of either taxpayers or students.

That is why Watkins would be helping her students, her institution, her state and herself by shooing all the lawyers out of the room, issuing a more heartfelt and meaningful apology and working with all those involved to rebuild a feeling of safety and trust on campus.

A good first step would be to announce that the University Police Department is going out of business and that the U. will work with the Salt Lake City Police Department to have it provide the real law enforcement coverage the campus needs. If nothing else, such a move would both admit that the department failed to do its job and reduce the chances that a future student in Lauren’s situation would be bounced back and fourth between different jurisdictions.

Going forward, Ruth Watkins should be able to be able to make speeches, welcome new students and celebrate academic, scientific, artistic and athletic achievements of her students and faculty without the first thought of those looking on having something to do with a campus where students just don’t feel safe.

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