Updates A look at what’s happening around campus


In January, the U announced its newest initiative to help students graduate faster and launch their careers sooner. A new pilot program—Invest in U—is an innovative approach to helping students finance their last year of school. The program, the first of its kind in the Western region, will allow students in selected majors to borrow up to $10,000. But instead of paying interest as with a traditional loan, students will pay 2.85 percent of their monthly income over a three- to 10-year period, depending on the amount and major.

Payments will go back into the Invest in U program, creating a perpetual fund to help future students. In addition, payments may be paused for students pursuing graduate degrees, engaged in voluntary service, or working full time but earning less than $20,000 a year. “Through Invest in U, the University of Utah is investing in our students to help them succeed, recognizing that many students start and stop their educations based on finances,” says U President Ruth Watkins.

Some students extend their schooling time or never graduate because they want to avoid excessive debt and work while going to school. Invest in U is designed to help them graduate and increase earning potential faster. The program is funded by $6 million in donor, investor, and university money.

“We are excited to see the University of Utah leading nationally in piloting this innovative, flexible financing option to help more students graduate,” says David Buhler BS’83 PhD’14, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. “In Utah, 27 percent of people who started college never graduated. This will help many more students get their diplomas, which we know is associated with higher earnings in the future.”


The university has moved swiftly to implement 30 recommendations made by an independent team that reviewed the U’s interactions with Lauren McCluskey in the weeks before her tragic murder last fall.

Most improvements are now in place, with a few recommendations—adoption of new database systems and accreditation of the Department of Public Safety, for example—still in progress. The changes will provide better communication and coordination between university entities when responding to concerns raised by or about campus community members.

Key groups across campus have participated in information sessions and trainings to ensure they are aware of polices, response expectations, and relevant resources. And several new staff are being hired in critical areas, including a victim advocate, a detective who specializes in interpersonal violence in the Department of Public Safety, and a resident outreach coordinator in Housing and Residential Education. The full list of actions implemented is available online at safeu.utah.edu.

President Ruth Watkins enlisted the three-member independent review team after McCluskey’s murder. The team includes two highly respected former commissioners of public safety in Utah and a former university chief of police who now serves as the head of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

The review team released its report on Dec. 17, 2018. Watkins asked Jeff Herring BA’98, chief human resources officer, to work with campus leaders to ensure timely adoption of the team’s initial 30 recommendations and to more broadly review additional changes to improve safety at the U.

“We are acting on all the insights and recommendations in the review team’s report, which identified gaps in our training, awareness, and enforcement of certain policies and offers us a roadmap for strengthening security on our campus,” Watkins says.

An outstanding student and track athlete, McCluskey was killed on Oct. 22, 2018, by a man with whom she had a brief relationship. The man was a master manipulator, practiced liar, and criminal who exploited McCluskey, the university, state corrections, and law enforcement systems to commit this horrific act.

“I am holding myself and my leadership team responsible for making these changes,” Watkins says. “Our commitment to Lauren, her friends, and family—as well as our students, parents, staff, faculty, and community—is that safety will continue to be a top priority at the University of Utah.”

Watkins also asked the independent review team to work with the Presidential Task Force on Campus Safety, which in January reconvened to conduct a second review of overall campus safety. The task force is looking at training practices; physical security; an ongoing organizational structure for safety-related issues; campus policies and best practices; and staffing and internal communication. New recommendations are expected by April.

Working Group on Healthy Relationships Formed

A new working group commissioned by President Watkins will focus on raising awareness and conversations about healthy relationships—and how to recognize and respond to problems, such as intimate partner violence.

“I am tasking this group to develop a plan to implement educational opportunities to broadly benefit U students, staff, and faculty,” Watkins said in her charge to the group, which includes representatives from across campus and from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

The group held its first meeting in mid-January and is considering campuswide initiatives that may include workshops, speakers, awareness campaigns, training, etc. The group also will look at programs offered by other institutions as well as opportunities to collaborate with organizations that promote healthy relationships.

Chinese President Recognizes U Metallurgy Professor

Halfway around the globe, U professor Jan Miller was recently honored by Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts on the processing of energy and mineral resources. Over several decades, Miller has traveled to China more than a dozen times, visiting 16 provinces to discuss, advise, and collaborate on research involving coal, potash, and other basic resources. The cooperation with China has included lectures, workshops, and research projects with universities in China, and has involved more than 100 Chinese students and researchers who have visited and/or studied with Miller’s group at the U.

“This recognition must include, by extension, the many contributions from our research group, and support from the University of Utah during the past decades,” says Miller. “The grandiose celebration in the Great Hall with President Xi was an unanticipated, exciting, and unforgettable experience.”

Civil Rights Leader to Speak at U’s 150th Commencement

Renowned civil rights activist, religious leader, former U faculty member, and U alum Rev. France A. Davis MA’78 will deliver the commencement address at the university’s 150th ceremony on May 2.

Davis has been pastor of Utah’s most prominent black church, Calvary Baptist, since 1974. His decision to devote his life’s work to ministry came after marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to- Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. He also served in the U.S. Air Force, held faculty positions at the U in communication and ethnic studies, and is the chaplain to the U football team.

“Rev. Davis’ quiet dignity, tireless advocacy for respecting all individuals, and steady message on unity make him a welcome and timely choice to address our graduates, as well as our greater campus community,” says President Ruth Watkins.

New Grant will Build Bridge
with Pacific Islander Community and the U

Strong community, resilient history, and vibrant traditions are key elements of the Pacific Islands culture. These same elements are the foundation of a Pacific Islands Studies initiative at the U— and a new $600,000 award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will allow major acceleration of this effort.

The three-year grant will be used to expand and promote an “academic ecosystem” at the U focused on three goals: recruiting and retaining students who are Pacific Islanders, advancing interdisciplinary and humanistic approaches to Pacific Islander research, and building meaningful relationships with Pacific Islander communities in the Salt Lake City area.

“The Mellon grant provides us with a substantial infusion of resources, which allows the Pacific Islands Studies initiative to develop our holistic plan all at once rather than doing it piecemeal over time,” says Hokulani Aikau, an associate professor of both gender studies and ethnic studies. “We strive to make the University of Utah the premier institution for Pacific Islands Studies scholarship in the continental U.S.”

Researcher Receives $2.5M to Study Alzheimer’s

Funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will give one U scientist the freedom to pursue new ideas in neurodegeneration research. Jason Shepherd, an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy, is one of just 17 recipients of the inaugural Ben Barres Award. The initiative’s goal is to support innovative work that may solve intractable problems. “For me what is most exciting is, this award gives my lab the freedom to pursue high-risk ideas that depart from the typical approach to Alzheimer’s disease,” Shepherd says.

U Student Awarded Churchill Scholarship

In an astounding streak of recognition, Cameron Owen is the fourth consecutive U student to receive the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He’s one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive the award in 2019. Owen and Peter Armentrout, a Distinguished Professor of chemistry at the U, are studying more efficient methane activation, which could eventually be used to convert enormous amounts of methane from natural and shale gas into usable products.

Congrats! U Finalist in National Challenge

With $1 million on the line in a national competition to benefit the middle class, a proposal to boost financial prosperity in Utah’s Carbon and Emery counties was one of five finalists in the American Dream Ideas Challenge. This summer, the group from the U will make a final pitch in the competition funded by investment firm Schmidt Futures, to secure funding in an attempt to raise net income for 10,000 middle-class families by 10 percent by the end of 2020.

While job growth statewide has increased 17 percent since 2008, employment in Utah’s coal country has declined 16 percent; unemployment is 5 percent, double the state’s rate. The Utah Coal Country Strike Team proposes building a tourism infrastructure, creating a Silicon Slopes eastern hub, revitalizing housing stock, and establishing customized economic incentives to spur development.

“We’ve all benefited from coal, but we face an economic, environmental, and moral imperative to combat global climate change,” says Natalie Gochnour BS’84 MS’88, one of the team’s co-chairs and director of the U’s Gardner Policy Institute. “The benefits of reducing our dependence on coal are widespread.”

Two other teams from Utah also made pitches in the national round. Neighbor helps people rent out unused storage space. And Mobility as a Service facilitates the use of public transportation options—transit, ride hailing, bike sharing, etc.—to help families with multiple cars use fewer vehicles.”

U Art Students Dedicate Murals to City of Murray

Painting isn’t usually a team activity. But nine murals recently unveiled in Murray City School District’s elementary schools were an impressive collaboration between U students, Murray residents, the Murray City Cultural Arts Department, and 2,800 elementary and secondary school students. Kim Martinez BFA’98, the U professor who oversaw the project, says bringing art to people is vital and that “art is a right—not a luxury.”

Learn more about Professor Kim Martinez in the prior Continuum feature here.


Campus Scene: Tradition

Commencement: Styles may come and go, but some things don't change.
Bookshelf: Vice Presidential Reads

Heidi Woodbury BS’89 is the U’s newest VP on the block. Here are some of her favorite books.

Leave a Comment

Comments are moderated, so there may be a slight delay before approved comments are posted. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).