When University of Utah President Ruth Watkins accepted her position, it didn’t cross her mind she had become the first woman president of the 168-year-old institution.
Jerilyn McIntyre, now a professor emeritus of communication, served temporarily as interim president of the U once in 1991 and again in 1997, but never has a woman been selected to permanently stand at the helm of the university.
“I am mindful of what a privilege this is,” Watkins said. “Perhaps I hadn’t thought through … how important it may be for people to see the opportunity for a woman to lead this great institution.”
A number of people have expressed admiration for her accomplishments, and Watkins is grateful for all of the people who have rallied around her as she steps into the role.
“I’ve had mothers and daughters want to have a picture taken with me and that sort of thing at a basketball game, and it’s touching to me and very valued that people care and want to join in both celebrating and supporting my success,” Watkins said.
Watkins, who will assume the entirety of the responsibilities of president starting April 2, has spent a lot of time in leadership positions at other institutions before coming to the U. Growing up, she didn’t plan to go into academia.
“As an undergraduate, I had a story much like many of our undergrads, where I had a little trouble deciding on a major,” Watkins said. “I started out [in] college as an undeclared student, transferred and it really was not until I actually dropped out of school for a year and had a couple of jobs that really kind of put me on this path. One of them turned out to be with a speech pathologist who worked with kids with disabilities.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in 1985. During her studies, a faculty member at UNI suggested Watkins look into graduate school.
“I credit a very engaged faculty member for encouraging me to think about a career in research and academia, who helped open doors for me to think that I was capable of that,” Watkins said.
Watkins went on to earn both her master’s and doctorate degrees in child language pathology from the University of Kansas and was named a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in 2003.
She began her career when she was appointed an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. There, she acted as the director of the Callier Center for Communication Disorders. In 1993, she accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she eventually rose up the ranks to become the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Watkins came to the U in 2013 and has acted as the provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs as well as a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Communication Sciences and Disorders for the past five years.
“Her reputation as a scholar and teacher is matched only by her reputation as a leader who is compassionate and warm,” said Daniel Campbell, chairman of the Board of Regents, at a meeting announcing her selection. “We are so grateful that she has accepted this new responsibility and look forward to President Watkins’s leadership at the University of Utah.”
The new president’s leadership style is marked by innovation, interdisciplinary cooperation and listening.
“You need to take the time to get to know people and build relationships, to care about what they care about or to at least understand what they care about,” Watkins said. “You want to involve many people in ideas and decision making. You want to do that because you will come up with a better outcome when you do that and when you hear lots of voices.”
She has written op-eds in The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News about the value of cross-disciplinary work in research and the U’s efforts to increase its online course offerings. As president, Watkins wants to continue her work and expand on initiatives the administration was already pursuing.
“We’ve made very significant strides in the success of our students — retention of students, completion of the degree and rates of completion have been on a wonderful positive trajectory,” Watkins said. “That has been enabled by a variety of creative strategies that help students succeed and I want to keep that going.”
Watkins also pointed to interdisciplinary research successes the U has had toward solving Utah-specific problems, like air quality.
Although the administration has made progress in some fields, Watkins replaces current President David Pershing following his decision to take an early retirement after a controversy regarding the dismissal of Mary Beckerle as the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Beckerle was later reinstated.
The move was met with backlash by faculty, employees and the late Jon Huntsman Sr. — the founder and primary benefactor of the institute. Watkins said one of the principles she values most in leadership — listening — should also be applied to the way the U deals with donors.
“We’re collectively guided by the best interest of the institution — donors want that just as much as I want that,” Watkins said. “Having the opportunity to have the conversation is the important part and making sure that your priorities align and that everybody has been clear.”
The U is in the process of selecting a replacement for Vivan Lee, former U Health CEO and director — a task Pershing said would wait until the new president was chosen. Watkins said the U will appoint the new CEO sometime this spring, along with the new provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs.
Moving forward, Watkins hopes to continue to improve on the U’s strengths and create a greater sense of community.
“I would want students to know how invested I am in their success and that my own life, both as a student and as a faculty member, helped me to understand how influential and important it is for students to feel a connection to their university and as if they belong here,” Watkins said. “My personal dream would be that every single student, undergraduate and graduate, that comes to the University of Utah finds that kind of meaningful connection here.”