Tribune Editorial: What’s good for the U. is good for Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins visits (Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granger High Students Lina Leo, and Ioana Johanson, after a news conference, as the University of Utah announced a new scholarship and tuition program at Granger High School, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

What’s good for the University of Utah is good for Utah. And vice versa.

And it was a good week for the U.

It started Monday morning, when U. President Ruth Watkins and members of the Huntsman family announced the creation of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, a very big and even more necessary institution that is intended to mirror the size and success of another jewel in the U.'s crown, the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

(Yes, it is a bit awkward to praise yet another blockbuster philanthropic gift from the family of this newspaper’s chairman of the board. So, in this context, let us focus on the university. And on the fact that the Huntsmans felt that it was worthy of their trust. And $150 million of their money.)

The success of the cancer institute is, in large part, that it combines research with health care — bench to bedside — in a way that gets potential treatments and cures from the test tube to the bloodstream as quickly as possible, with immediate feedback to the researchers on how effective each new tool is. That will be the approach of the new mental heath organization as well.

And it’s not a moment too soon.

Utah today drags the bottom of mental health service availability, with deplorably high rates of suicide — especially among young people — substance abuse, depression and the thousand other heartaches that the mind is heir to.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are spread far too thin across the state, especially in rural areas. At the same time, Utahns are a hardy breed, far too disposed to just tough it out — or turn to unhealthy forms of self-medication — when some real mental health services are what’s needed.

Also, U. leaders are aware that the multitude of young adults who populate their campus every day are among those often most in need of mental health services. And among the least likely to go for help, often just for lack of resources. As with cancer and other maladies of the body, the success of mental health treatment is easier and more likely when problems are addressed early.

Speaking of the students, later in the week, Watkins and other U. leaders announced a new scholarship program that can make all the difference between getting a college degree and not getting one for a great many Utahns.

The new For Utah Scholarship program will cover all tuition and fee expenses for the full four years for students who meet the eligibility rules. Basically, that’s being a Utah resident, from a family income bracket that qualifies the student for a federal Pell Grant, as well as meeting and maintaining high school and college academic standards.

It builds on the Promise Scholarship program for the first two years of a college career, approved in the last session of the Utah Legislature, with the U. kicking in some $2.5 million a year to reach an estimated 1,100 new freshmen and carry them through an entire bachelor’s degree sequence.

And, oh, yes, the U. was also invited to join the exclusive membership of the Association of American Universities, an alliance of the nation’s top schools, now numbering only 65. It’s a recognition of the university’s accomplishments that should only help it in attracting and retaining the best students and professors going forward.

None of this completely dissipates the cloud that hangs over the university and its mishandling of the tragic series of events that led to the murder, a little more than a year ago, of student Lauren McCluskey.

But, despite the school’s maddening unwillingness to admit that its agencies or employees did anything wrong, there are good signs in the fact that the U. will be hiring not only a new police chief but adding a new director of campus safety to better integrate the security functions of all of the school’s departments and offices.

All of Utah’s institutions of post-secondary education, public and private, are key drivers of our economy, our culture and our humanity. News this week that the flagship of that fleet will be increasing both its outreach of services and its ability to welcome new students is something in which all Utahns can take great pride.