When Ruth Watkins was a teenager, she worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the Elkader city pool. It was here that she learned a lesson that would shape her outlook for years to come.
Most of the instructors chose to shout directions from the edge of the pool, but not Watkins. If you really want to make a difference, she realized, you have to get in the water and work alongside the swimmers.
Sometimes it was early morning, freezing cold, and the last thing she wanted to do was get in that pool. “But I could see that if I was actually going to be effective at all, I had to be in there with the kids,” she explains. “You make things happen by being part of it. If you want to do something, if you want to make something happen, get in there, work hard, and get other people mobilized around you.”
It was a lesson that surfaced everywhere in Elkader, Iowa, her small, Midwestern hometown (pop. 1,200). Join in and work hard. Mobilize support. Capitalize on the power of the collective effort to make things happen.
Watkins, who officially became the 16th president of the University of Utah on April 2 and will be inaugurated this fall, now has the biggest stage yet in her academic career to act on that lesson. She succeeds David W. Pershing, who is rejoining the faculty after a six-year presidency notable for promotion of engaged student experiences and donor support that made possible an impressive array of expansion and renovation projects across campus.
At the top of Watkins’ to-do list is to hire a new athletic director and a new senior vice president for health sciences. “We don’t want to lose any momentum, so it’s go, go, go,” Watkins says. There has been a transitioning but no break between her old role and her new one. In fact, she has already named her replacement as senior vice president for academic affairs, Daniel A. Reed from the University of Iowa.
Other items on her lengthy list: working more closely with the U’s leadership team, and meeting with faculty, university administrators, and staff; key lawmakers, donors, and community stakeholders; and clinicians, researchers, and others in the university’s health sciences.
Watkins’ ability to find opportunities where others might see only challenges is a trait that impressed those who met with her when she first considered joining the University of Utah as a senior vice president five years ago. Clark Ivory BA’88, a former U trustee who served on that hiring committee, met with Watkins one-on-one and asked what she would do to enhance undergraduate success.
“She said, ‘I have 18 items that I think are important. Do you want to hear each one?’ ” Ivory recalls. “My answer was ‘Of course!’ We then talked through each point, and I was impressed about how much she had thought about this list and what she wanted to accomplish at the U. She is a doer.”
“What is the life-changing innovation for the 21st century
that the G.I. Bill was for the 20th?”
There is no stoplight in Elkader. No McDonald’s. Central Community High School, from which Watkins graduated in 1979, serves seven agricultural communities largely settled by Scandinavian immigrants who recognized home in the barren, brisk beauty of what is known as the Driftless Area.
Watkins’ father, Peter Watkins, proved a powerful motivator for his daughter. Peter’s mother died giving birth to him in 1932, and he and his sister were raised “wonderfully” by two elderly grandparents. After graduating from high school, Peter spent four years in the Navy—which made him eligible for the G.I. Bill. Among other benefits, it provided “a life-changing opportunity for people to go to college,” Watkins says.
“Think about that—how did my dad get from what was a pretty rough start to becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine?” she asks. “It really is remarkable for someone who had no financial help from anybody to make his way through a DVM degree. ”The G.I.Bill, along with support from Ruth’s mother, who worked as a second-grade teacher while Peter completed veterinary school, made the difference.
“How do we make sure that that kind of mobility and change in life happens for people today—not just access to higher education but upward mobility in terms of achievement?” Watkins asks. “What is the life-changing innovation for the 21st century that the G.I. Bill was for the 20th? That is a question all of us can be asking.”
Peter Watkins had what his daughter describes as an All Creatures Great and Small kind of practice, referencing the British veterinarian and author James Herriot. He worked with dairy and beef cattle, pigs, and other farm animals, but also “everybody’s beloved pets.” The entire family, which included two brothers, pitched in. Ruth filled in occasionally as office telephone receptionist.
“It was a good way to grow up,” she says.
A GAP YEAR
After high school, it was off to Iowa State University, which her father and other family members had attended. But the university was not the right fit for Watkins. She transferred to the University of Iowa midway through her sophomore year, and then, when summer came, she decided not to re-enroll. “I never felt very connected to an academic program at either of those institutions,” she says. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”
Watkins got a job as a counselor at a summer camp and stayed on when the season was over. Around Thanksgiving, she found a new job working in a public school with a communications disorder specialist—a field of work she would fall in love with. “I worked with individuals who had communication difficulties and learned what a limiter that was on their potential—not because they weren’t bright or didn’t have the talent, but because they couldn’t convey it to the rest of the world. I learned about the real power of communication, both in self-empowerment and self-determination and in being able to live up to your potential.”
Watkins went back to school—this time at the University of Northern Iowa—with a new focus and zeal for studying speech-language pathology. It was there that Watkins received the nudge that set her on a career in academia. John E. Bernthal, then a professor in the Communicative Disorders program, suggested Watkins forgo being a practitioner and instead pursue an advanced degree and join the team generating knowledge.
“He was the first person to say, ‘You are a very capable person, you’re bright, you are a good writer, you should think more expansively about your future,’ ” Watkins says. “For me, that was a powerful thing. I, of course, had not thought much at all about the possi- bility of an academic career, and his words created the possibility.”
Next stop was the University of Kansas, where Watkins completed master’s and doctoral degrees in child language/speech language pathology. Her mentor, Mabel Rice, had created what was at the time an innovative interdisciplinary doctoral program that brought together psychology, linguistics, special education, and speech and hearing science. Watkins says she learned from Rice how to integrate people from different backgrounds and perspectives to understand and solve problems.
Rice is quick to return the compliment. Describing Watkins, she says, “She established a reputation as a strong scholar in the early years before she followed her interest into university-level leadership.” And as a graduate student, it was clear Watkins was a natural leader. “She conveys this ability to make meaningful connections with people and to create a sense of team, to pull together and do what is needed to move forward,” Rice says.
Watkins launched her academic career at the University of Texas at Dallas and then returned to the Midwest and a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois. Administrative opportunities came not long after she received tenure—first as an associate dean, then associate provost, and then vice provost of academic affairs.
It was during these years as an administrator that Watkins heard her own experience with caring faculty members repeated in countless transformational stories of people she met. “You never know which student or at what moment a student needs to hear that encouragement or is receptive to it,” she says. “You just want to be sure, as faculty, that you are providing that as often as you can.”
A KNACK FOR NAMES
Mabel Rice had plenty of chances to witness Ruth Watkins’ uncanny knack for remembering names and details about people she meets. Watkins was Rice’s graduate teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. At the end of the first class, after reviewing course objectives and other matters, Watkins asked each of the 65 students in turn to say his or her name.
“As the class assembled for the second meeting several days later, selecting whichever seat they wished in the room, Ruth asked me if she could start the class,” Rice says. “She began by asking the students if they could help her check her memory. She then went around the room and correctly said each student’s name and chatted a little about their interests.”
That incredible recall and demonstration of her interest in them won Watkins the students’ full admiration and devotion to her instructions, Rice says.
Decades later, Watkins’ way with names is still wowing people. Watkins says she is terrible at geography and directions. Instead, she has built a map of the university in her head that is all about the people, the roles they are in, and how they contribute to the U.
“You have to listen, and you have to be genuinely interested,” she says. “I try to remember something personal and a few key facts. If you listen for a second and then remember one or two things, it tends to stay with you quite a bit better.”
Being able to address people by name, Watkins says, makes them feel connected, that she cares, and that she is invested in their success—and also makes them more accountable.
Skyler Deason, logistics manager for the University Ambassador Program, has watched Watkins work her magic at the annual Red, White & U Day in April, when admitted students and their parents visit campus to learn more about attending the university. About 2,000 people typically participate, and Watkins always gets there early to mingle, Deason says.
“I don’t think people grasp who she is when she is out talking with students,” Deason says.
But then Watkins will take the stage and proceed to call out by name a handful of students she has just met, asking them to stand while she introduces their hometown, academic aspirations, and what they are interested in doing at the U. “The reaction is amazement,” Deason says.
A PLACE WITH POTENTIAL
Watkins was weighing a new administrative opportunity at a large public university when a headhunter representing the University of Utah called. Her visit to Utah was eye opening.
“I could catch the energy, enthusiasm, and potential,” she says.“I could see what a promising place this is. I could see a state with a lot of upside, a university that was blossoming, really ready to embrace new things and very welcoming. It was much easier to get people mobilized around a future.”
After she joined the U as senior vice president for academic affairs in August 2013, that perception proved to be reality. And when the president’s position opened, Watkins was perfectly positioned to seek it—bolstered by enthusiastic, broad support across campus and in the community. Even members of her homeowner’s association, all “loyal supporters of the U,” sent in a letter of recommendation, noting Watkins’ integrity, experience, love for students, and “superb people skills.”
Watkins is the first woman selected as president of Utah’s flagship university in its 168-year history. (Jerilyn S. McIntyre led as interim president of the U twice during the 1990s.) The milestone is emphasized by many who are celebrating Watkins’ new role. At campus events, she has been approached by many young women as well as mothers who want photos of her with their daughters.
“Ruth was the best candidate, and she happens to be a woman,” says Pat Jones BS’93, a member of the Utah State Board of Regents, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, and a former lawmaker. “She will be a tremendous asset. She has every skill required and outdistanced some fantastic candidates.”
Watkins knows her presidency will serve as a mirror for talented women to see what is possible for them. “What an honor it is to have any small part in showing that to people,” Watkins says. “It is an
incredible privilege, but it’s also a heavy responsibility. I really want to live up to the trust that people have placed in me.”
Rice says Watkins’ authenticity and innate talent for leading will serve Utah well. “In a time when leaders engage coaches to teach them how to do this, Ruth brings a genuineness that rings true, harnessed with an incredible intellectual insight about how organizational systems can work and how data analytics can be a fundamental part of the design and evaluation systems,” Rice says. “She also brings self-discipline, determination, persistence, and a readiness to read the times for when to stay steady and when to change.”
“I really want to live up to the trust
that people have placed in me.”
Watkins is an early riser. “Five a.m. is precious time,” she says. “It’s hard to schedule a meeting at that hour.” This is when she slips on her sneakers, gets her walking buddy Ben—a rescue golden retriever adopted shortly after the move to Utah—and heads outdoors to power walk and think “about what we’re doing, what we need to do.”
If an empty Saturday materializes, Watkins is likely to fill it with sports—a workout, bicycling, or occasionally golf with her husband, Bob Young (who is retired), or an evening with friends or at a U event.
But the truth is that such days are few and far between. Watkins is focused on what’s next.
The U’s future acceleration, as Watkins sees it, will come from ensuring that faculty have the resources, facilities, first-rate colleagues, and high-caliber students they need to excel, as well as opportunities for new collaborations across campus. She also is carrying forward Pershing’s dedication to promoting student success.
“Under her leadership [as a senior vice president], we created many programs to immerse students in their learning process and the campus community, increase graduation rates, provide real-world experiences that lead to jobs, and improve the quality and value of the education they receive,” says Pershing. “I am confident President Watkins will add to and improve upon that shared vision, along with implementing her priorities.”
Watkins says the U is ready to move student success forward one more step.
“Our colleagues in health sciences have focused sharply on bringing an exceptional patient experience,” she says. “I think the next phase for us is thinking about the exceptional educational experience, which can continue to advance the retention and graduation rate outcomes we are striving for.”
Watkins will be working to ensure that the University of Utah is recognized nationally for its scholarship and student success, but also that it is seen as the University for Utah—the place that draws well-prepared students from throughout the state who receive a first-rate education that prepares them to enter the workforce equipped to meet needs and excel, the place that solves the problems of greatest importance to Utah residents, and the institution that meets communities’ health care needs.
“The U has never been stronger, by many measurable indicators,” Watkins says. “The largest freshman class, the most academically well-prepared, and the most diverse came to us in the fall of 2017. Overall research funding has increased by $100 million over the past five years. The university is doing relevant work that is garnering support of donors. This is a university on the move, doing important work, making great things happen, solving problems, and attracting talent.
“We are the up and comer,” Watkins says, “and people see that all around the country. The secret is out. This is Utah’s time.”
—Brooke Adams is a communications specialist at University Marketing & Communications.
Students-first strategy paying off
As senior vice president for academic affairs, Ruth Watkins was instrumental in the university’s pursuit of four strategic goals—promote student success, generate knowledge, engage communities, and ensure long-term vitality of the U. Here are a few highlights of growth in these areas over the past five years:
- First-year retention rates rose to 90%
- Six-year graduation rate went from 59% to 67%
- Total research funding rose 27%
- Diverse faculty recruitment went up 27%
- Financial aid awards increased 11% and scholarships grew 77%