Photo by Kiffer Creveling, The Daily Utah Chronicle

Ruth Watkins Inaugurated as the U’s 16th President It’s time to transform education for the 21st century, she says.


Today I officially take responsibility for an institution that has been loved and well cared for since its inception. Each of the 15 presidents who preceded me lifted this university to new heights…. It is such a tribute to my predecessors’ vision and leadership that I take over a university that has never been stronger. And yet, there is so much more we can do.

I am confident that we can work together to achieve even greater heights in our quest to make this one of the truly great public universities in this country, even as we fulfill the hopes, dreams, and needs of the people in this great state. Our aim: to advance our stature as the University of Utah, while increasing our impact as the University for Utah.

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?

Many people helped me along the way, unselfish in your guidance and support, generous in your commitment to the U, and to me. I thank each of you. But I know that the sequence of events that led to this humbling and wonderful opportunity for me were set in motion much longer ago—with my parents and their experience with the life-changing impact that education can have.

My father was born in 1932 in very difficult circumstances. My dad’s mom died when he was born. His father lost a business and left his family. My father was fortunate to be raised by loving grandparents, very hardworking people during a challenging time in America, a time of severe economic hardship.

From that very difficult start, my dad—who always said he wasn’t as smart as his peers but instead got through by working very hard—ultimately made his way through a doctorate of veterinary medicine, and he did so without accumulating any debt….

How was this accomplishment possible? There were two significant life-changing influences: the G.I. Bill, and the wisdom to marry my mother, a wonderful woman and a second-grade teacher.

The fact that I was born to college-educated parents has no doubt been a significant determinant of the opportunities I’ve had. The G.I. Bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, was a life-changer that provided access to higher education for millions of Americans who were the first in their families to attend and finish college, including my dad. I am a second-generation beneficiary of that visionary American innovation.

So, today our question is: What are we doing now that will make a college education possible and meaningful for coming generations of students? What do we owe those who are coming of age today in America?

I believe that we have a duty to transform education for the 21st century in the same way the G.I. Bill and, before it, the Morrill Act of 1862—which established land grant universities across our nation—made higher education possible for millions of Americans, allowing them to achieve the American Dream.

As we at the University of Utah focus on this obligation, we remain grounded in the values and principles upon which this university was founded. In 1850, just three years after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, our founders created a modest institution of higher education to ensure a prosperous and fulfilling future for the people of Utah.

From that humble beginning grew a major research university with global stature. Over decades of growth and change, the university has maintained its commitment to inquiry, innovation, and public service. Inherent in the U’s values is a legacy of community—of joining together for the common good.

With that common good in mind, we are thinking about our duty to meet the needs of 21st-century students, much as the G.I. Bill did for those before us—people like my own father.

One strategy now in the works here at the U is an innovative income share program that will use donor investments and institutional funds to help thousands of our students cross the finish line to their degree in a timely manner—getting them into the workforce or on to their next step more quickly, and earning increased wages.

Our vision: a self-perpetuating fund that students who graduate will contribute to, ensuring the success of those who follow them. This innovative idea, designed by the U for U students, is made possible by creative and generous investors who are working with us to fund this transformative “Invest in U” program, allowing our students to pay today’s tuition with tomorrow’s earnings.

I believe now is the time to build on our country’s proud history of providing access to higher education for individuals from all economic backgrounds with innovations that meet 21st-century needs—the goal of our income share program.

This is the University for Utah in action.

This kind of innovation is one of the reasons the U is uniquely positioned to lead as a model public institution in the 21st century, and there are many others. We are delivering value in higher education and health care through an ideal combination of quality and cost.

What is value in health care? In higher education? It is not just what you pay—that’s cost. Value is what you get for what you pay, the intersection of cost and quality. Now, as it turns out, Utah owns value in both health care and higher education…. Utah is in the sweet spot of value.

We are proud of what the U has accomplished in delivering value in medicine and in higher education—and we are working to increase this value. This is important for Utah, and for the nation, as the value of a higher education is called into question and health care spirals beyond affordability.

“We have an obligation to our students, our state, and our nation to be a higher education innovator.”

This is the University for Utah in action.

Thanks to the pathbreaking work of our team in health sciences, the U is now known for an exceptional patient experience. Our patient care is consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally. We are extending the road map developed in our academic medical setting to create and ensure the exceptional educational experience.

The U’s student population, with its broad interests and needs, brings remarkable diversity and talent to the institution. One example: This year’s commencement speaker, Hodan Abdi [BS’18]. Hodan and her family fled Somalia during its civil war and emigrated to the U.S. from an Ethiopian refugee camp. She had a limited formal education, which might have been an obstacle to future success. But not for Hodan.

Hodan’s first interaction with the U was as a custodian. This sparked her determination to get an education, and, with the encouragement and help of our staff and faculty, she did. Hodan graduated from the U last spring after completing a degree in chemistry and is now beginning medical school at the University of Minnesota.

We celebrate Hodan’s achievements and cherish our ability to provide an exceptional education for all students—our future leaders—like Hodan, as well as the thousands of students from Lehi to Logan, Price to Parowan, Moab to Mount Pleasant, Farmington to Fairview, who look to the U for a life-changing experience. Our aim is simple: every student who comes to the U will have an exceptional educational experience. And they will complete their degrees!

This is the University for Utah in action.

The U’s value comes not only in our commitment to our students and patients, but from our commitment to innovation and discovery. We have proudly moved to the top tier of public universities in the country, attracting world-class faculty who engage in groundbreaking research and draw inquisitive, smart, creative students who are the changemakers, innovators, and leaders of our future.

Our researchers are recognized with the highest awards in the country… prestigious National Academy memberships, Guggenheim awards. More importantly, they are solving some of the most pressing problems of our time and improving health and quality of life in Utah and beyond.

In part this is happening through the collaboration and transfer of knowledge from one generation of scholars to the next. Craig Selzman’s pathbreaking work in cardiothoracic surgery, for example, builds on the shoulders of Russell M. Nelson, a former surgeon and faculty member, now president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The impact of our innovation and discovery is clear: The U.S. Department of Energy selected the U to develop a Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, FORGE, right here in Utah, to investigate expansion of the nation’s geothermal systems.

Many of you have supported the U in these efforts. I am deeply, deeply grateful to our partners in our community, city and state, to our donors and political leaders, and to the talented people of this institution. You truly are a “team of teams” in the best sense, each of you leading in your area while joining us in a network of impact.

This is the University for Utah in action.

Your university truly has never been stronger. And yet, we can—and must—do more. We have an obligation to our students, our state, and our nation to be a higher education innovator—leading the way in developing creative strategies that enable success and completion for our students; deliver value and ensure exceptional experiences in health care and higher education; and drive the discoveries that will improve human lives.

As we pursue our vision as the University for Utah, I would like to ask you to help us reach new heights, to consider what you can do as a member of our university community, to accelerate the momentum of the University of Utah. With your support, there is much we can do together. The stakes are high. This work matters. Staying true to the values of our founders, we can ensure a vibrant future for the people of Utah and do our part to make a difference in the world.



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