Tribune Editorial: Ruth Watkins will be missed by the University, and the state, of Utah

Under her leadership, the U. has reached even greater heights.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins visits with Granger High students, Maria Tores, Valeria Lopez and Ian Coronado, as The University of Utah announces a new scholarship and tuition program during a news conference at Granger High School, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. Watkins announced Tuesday, Jan 12, 2021 that she is stepping down and has accepted a post to lead Strada Impact, a national education program focused on getting students to complete college.

The University of Utah was already the leading educational, cultural, scientific, medical and economic institution in the state when Ruth Watkins became its president three years ago. It is a measure of her abilities and success that now, as Watkins announces that she is moving on to the next step in her career, the state’s flagship institution of higher learning is, in so many ways, better still.

This matters, and not just to the university’s students, faculty and staff. It matters to everyone in the state that its flagship institution of higher learning is creating an educated citizenry, an arts and cultural hub, a top-flight health care system and scores of highly paid careers that boost the economy and quality of life for all of us.

It is, as Watkins says, not just the University of Utah, but the University for Utah.

Watkins became the 16th president of the U. in 2018, after coming to the school as senior vice president for academic affairs in 2013.

On her watch, more first-generation college students and people of color are entering the school. That is in part a result of the new For Utah Scholarship program, which covers four years of tuition and fees for Utah residents who qualify for federal Pell Grants.

A greater percentage of the students who begin their education there are receiving their degrees. Women no longer lag behind men in enrollment or graduation. (That’s the case at most universities these days, but, in Utah, it’s more of an accomplishment.)

Research grants and other fund-raising are reaching new highs. A goal to raise $2 billion for capital improvements was reached — three years early.

Different communities within the organization, particularly the medical school at the top of the hill and the other academic departments closer to the valley, are more cooperative and synergistic. That came from a Watkins initiative she calls “One U.”

The university has been invited to be a member of the most exclusive club of institutions of higher education in the country, the Association of American Universities, one of only 65 schools to be included. That is both a recognition of the university’s accomplishments and a beacon to attract the best teachers and researchers, top professionals who may decide that, rather than a step on the career ladder, the U. is where they belong.

There are more opportunities to live on campus. New educational and medical facilities have been opened, on and off campus, and more are on the drawing board.

Michael Good, the U.’s senior vice president of health sciences, describes Watkins as a “servant-leader.” She’s equally comfortable talking with an awkward freshman or a molecular biologist, a gender studies professor or a demanding philanthropist.

The one cloud over Watkins’ record followed the on-campus murder of student athlete Lauren McCluskey, the university’s many missed opportunities to protect its student and its president’s assertion — since retracted as part of a $13.5 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents — that there wasn’t anything the university could have done to prevent the tragedy. It is fair to suppose that, even with many improvements in campus safety since, the bad feelings left over from that sad series of events motivated Watkins to look for a new opportunity.

Fittingly, that move will be to become president of a national organization called Strada Impact, a nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to young people entering, and graduating from, the nation’s universities. That’s a cause that Watkins clearly cares about and has had much success addressing.

It would be petty of us to insist that Utah keep Ruth Watkins to itself. But replacing her will be a tall order indeed.