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U of U President Watkins leaves legacy of accomplishments and criticism

Ruth Watkins headshot Jan 2018.jpg
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins. (University of Utah)

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins will step down in April to take a new job as president of Strada Impact, a non-profit that works on research and policy that moves more students into college and careers.

Watkins, who spent two years as president of the university, was praised for her achievements by some, and criticized by students who say she didn’t heed their advice for campus safetyafter student Lauren McCluskey was murdered on campus in 2018.

She served as senior Vice President of academic affair for the university , before she was named president.

Christian Gardner, Chairman of the University of Utah Board of Trustees, said under Watkins, the university was invited to join the Association of American Universities, which recognizes schools that lead in scientific research.

She also improved student success and under her leadership, the U welcomed the most ethnically and racially diverse students body in the history of the school.

Gardner said:

Her legacy is her commitment to students."

The university said under Watkins, the graduation rate went from 51% to 70% in ten years. Gardner praised her efforts to establish the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention on campus.

It was the on-campus murder of McCluskey, and Watkins' actions following the murder, that led to criticism and even calls for her resignation from some students, including Devon Cantwell with the group UnsafeU, which advocates for campus safety.

Recently, the McCluskey family reached a multimillion dollar settlement with the University.

Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mother said the following about Watkins’ departure:

We wish Watkins the best in her future endeavors. We plant to work with the new leadership at the U to improve campus safety and hope to raise funds to build the indoor track facility for Lauren’s teammates.”

Students , some who’ve called for Watkins’ resignation since the death of McCluskey, weighed in too.

Ermiya Fanaeian, director of diversity of Associated Students of the University of Utah, said:

The way that the institution, under her leadership, handled the murder of Lauren McCluskey, brought absolutely no justice to Lauren and her family."

Fanaeian said that is disappointing, given that Watkins was the U’s first woman president.

“The biggest mistake she’s made is not outright trusting students and our experiences,” said Cantwell.

She criticized Watkins for not being transparent after the murder of McCluskey and not immediately apologizing to Lauren’s family and not holding police accountable for their failure to respond to McCluskey’s calls for help before she was killed.

Cantwell would says the university has made some improvements toward improving student safety like hiring a chief safety officer , overhauling the police department, and providing more services to victims.

While the university posts crime information on the police website, Cantwell said the U needs to provide dashboards with real-time Crime information.

She said university should include students in the search committee for for Watkins’ replacement.

The university said the committee will be formed by the end of January 2021.