New U President Has Lofty Goals
Ruth Watkins knows firsthand the positive impact educators can have on students’ lives. Years ago, a professor’s encouragement redirected the course of her career, launching her on a path that eventually led to Watkins’ recent appointment as the 16th president of the University of Utah.
“My initial plan was to work as a clinician,” Watkins says. “But John E. Bernthal, a mentor and professor at the University of Northern Iowa, told me I should consider getting an advanced degree and pursue research and teaching. John was the first person to give me the great advice and encouragement to think about the possibility of a career in academia.”
Taking his advice, Watkins completed master’s and doctoral degrees focusing on language, particularly communication development and disabilities in children. She took her first faculty position at the University of Texas at Dallas. From there she went to the University of Illinois where she moved into academic leadership roles, eventually taking a position as dean of liberal arts and sciences.
“As a dean, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with many successful alumni,” Watkins says. “I heard over and over about how faculty can change the way students think about themselves and open the doors of possibility, just as Professor Bernthal had done for me.”
Now as president of the University of Utah, she wants to use her experiences to create an educational environment that will help students graduate and become leaders in their fields.
“It is important to help faculty realize the transformative power they can have on our students’ lives,” Watkins says.
Watkins arrived at the University of Utah in 2013 to take the position of senior vice president for academic affairs, little expecting that in five years Utah’s Board of Regents would appoint her as the university’s first female president.
“It has been humbling to experience the warm and enthusiastic reaction of so many people,” Watkins says. “I consider it a privilege but also a responsibility to carry out this role in such a way that it opens doors for many more women and for others who have not traditionally had opportunities for leadership roles.”
She is quick to point out the women who led the way for her, including Jerilyn McIntyre, who served twice as the University of Utah’s interim president, and Hanna Holborn Gray, the first woman provost at Yale and the first woman president of a major research university.
“I just read Gray’s memoir and found it inspiring and insightful, particularly in her perspective on leadership,” Watkins says. “She cautions not to aim for a specific role, but instead to focus on what you hope to accomplish as a leader.”
Leading by Listening
Watkins believes accomplishment starts by bringing people together, something she has worked on from day one. She recently visited northern Utah, where she met with alumni, business and government leaders, and partners in higher education. In line with that, she’s also set a goal for the university to receive both national and local recognition for promoting student success and fulfilling community needs. She says it’s the “University for Utah.”
“We have a responsibility to provide a world-class education for our graduates so they are ready to fill Utah’s workforce needs and able to solve the state’s most pressing problems,” Watkins says.