University of Utah Inaugurates First Female President


Kiffer Creveling

H. David Burton, chair of the University of Utah Board of Trustees (right), and Harris H. Simmons, chair of the Utah Board of Regents (center), present Dr. Ruth Watkins with a “Utah Woman Am I ” pillow at her inauguration of University of Utah president at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Mackenzie McDermott

Three harps played as leaders from across Utah filed into the historic Kingsbury Hall. All gathered to see the inauguration of the first female president of the University of Utah, Ruth Watkins.

Watkins has been building up her administration and outlining her vision for the U since April. Now, she has officially taken responsibility for the 168-year-old university.

“President Watkins, your fellow presidents stand beside you,” said Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin.

Alongside presidents of Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College, Watkins marks more than half of the leaders of all higher education institutions in Utah as women.

“But the passing of time going forward will take little elect of president Watkins’ gender, but will focus almost entirely on her accomplishments and contributions to the further upbuilding of the University of Utah,” said Utah Lt. Gov.Spencer Cox.

With a long career of leadership and learning, speakers praised her preparation for the position.

“If you look at her resume it is second to none. There is no one more qualified to assume the role of president of the University of Utah, the flagship university of our state, than President Watkins,” Cox said.

In his time on stage, Utah System of Higher Education Commissioner David Buhler referenced a paper outlining the three traits that make a successful college president. The guide, compiled by Delaware State University board chair David Turner, American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Institute Director Mary Evans Sias and Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith Eaton, said the most important traits a leader can have are flexibility, sustainability and communication.

Flexibility includes the ability to think outside of the box and adapt to changing priorities. Sustainability is the foresight to set both short-term and long-term goals and prepare for the possibility of funding cuts. Communication is not only conveying a message but appreciating and being able to read diverse groups of people.

University of Utah president Dr. Ruth Watkins speaking at her inauguration at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

“I’ll bet you’ve had the same thought I had, they may as well have included president Watkins’ photo in the article,” Buhler said.

Just before Watkins was presented with the presidential medallion and a pillow reading “A Utah woman am I,” in reference to the U’s fight song, a video began to play. Leaders of the U, including the president of the Associated Students of the University of Utah, members of the Alumni Association Board of Directors, professors and the director of the Dream Center and Office of Engagement, spoke on behalf of students, staff and alumni of the university saying they are “all in” for Watkins’ presidency.

Watkins received a standing ovation as she stepped up to the podium to accept the medallion.

The U’s Chamber Choir sang “What a Wonderful World,” setting the stage for the Inaugural Address.

“I must confess that, on this occasion and many others in the past few months, I’ve asked myself: Why me? How did it come to be that I have the honor of leading this great university?” Watkins said.

University of Utah president Dr. Ruth Watkins speaking at her inauguration at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

After thanking everyone in attendance who helped her get to where she is today, Watkins paid tribute to her parents. As their pictures appeared on the screens behind her, Watkins spoke of the G.I. Bill signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 to provide benefits to World War II veterans, which let her father pursue a doctorate with no debt.

Watkins noted being a member of the second generation to benefit from the introduction of the G.I. Bill.

“What are we doing today that will make a college education possible and meaningful for the coming generations of students?” Watkins asked.

Watkins went over some of her plans for turning the University of Utah into the University for Utah.

The “Invest in U” program is a fund that alumni can contribute to, made for “allowing students to pay today’s tuition with tomorrow’s earnings,” Watkins said. The U hopes for the program to give an opportunity for higher education to students from all backgrounds.

“This is the University for Utah in action,” Watkins followed.

Her next move is to increase the value of a degree from the U.

“This is the University for Utah in action,” Watkins said.

The list goes on with the aim to give students a quality education, increase degree completion and further commitment to innovation and research.

Watkins ended by thanking those in attendance for their support.

“I recognize how deeply fortunate I am to be leading this university at this moment in its history,” Watkins said. “I acknowledge that I would not be here without you. We share this success, and we share this opportunity. The responsibility is significant. But the burden is lightened by you, as my partners.”

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