On Jan. 18, the Utah State Board of Regents unanimously chose Ruth Watkins as the next president of the University of Utah. Watkins was the right choice for a number of reasons.
Working as the U’s senior vice president of academic affairs since 2013, Watkins has a history with the school and has had an impact on those who have worked with her.
The U’s vice president for advancement said Watkins “has a rare combination of superb intellect and extraordinary people skills that has really served the university well,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
At the announcement, The Daily Utah Chronicle reported that Board of Regents Chair Daniel Campbell said of Watkins: “[S]he had a long, storied, strong background before coming to the University of Utah, and has made her mark here.”
Watkins beat out two presidential candidates from well known and respected schools. Thomas Katsouleas is the executive vice president of the University of Virginia, while Nicholas Jones holds the same title at Pennsylvania State University. By choosing Watkins, the Utah State Board of Regents showed that it is more interested in doing what is right for the university rather than simply bringing in big names.
Watkins has shown a commitment to listening to students and hearing their concerns. She played an active role in implementing an Anti-Racism Task Force at the U in October.
“We have worked hard on issues related to race, equity and diversity of this campus,” Watkins has said. “The Anti-Racism Task Force is a very important part of that work, as is spending time with our students, our student groups of color, and all of our students, our faculty and our staff to chart forward the university that we hope to be, and build on the strength of the growing diversity in our state.”
Watkins admitted that she and other administrators have made mistakes, or not been diligent enough, on race-related issues in the past.
“[We] want to acknowledge that members of our Black community and other communities of color have been communicating with us for many years about the need for stronger action,” a letter signed by Watkins and two other administrators reads. “We regret it took deplorable acts of overt racism on campus this fall [anti-black posters found on campus] to help bring us to this point.”
Watkins’ apppointment made history. As has been widely noted, Watkins will be the first woman to lead the state’s flagship institution. This landmark is noteworthy because women are disproportionately underrepresented in higher education. As of 2015, women were more likely than men to have a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, only 28 percent of public universities have female presidents.
Though this point is important, it was not a determining factor in the Board of Regents’ selection. Watkins was selected because of her decades of experience in higher education and strong reputation among U administrators and officials. By these merits, Watkins was the right choice.
When Drew Gilpin Faust was selected as president of Harvard in 2007, she famously said, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard.”
While it is important to recognize the significance of the University of Utah electing its first woman president, it is likewise important to not let this fact overshadow the experience and accomplishments that led to Watkins’ appointment. Ruth Watkins is not the woman president of the University of Utah. Ruth Watkins is the president of the University of Utah.