Former UI dean named president at University of Utah

A former University of Illinois administrator who left campus in 2013 has been named president of the University of Utah.

Ruth Watkins was selected as the school’s 16th president — and the first woman to hold the job on a permanent basis in its 168-year history. She will take over this spring.

Watkins, 56, now senior vice president for academic affairs at Utah, was one of three finalists announced by a search committee last week and the only internal candidate. She succeeds David Pershing, president since 2012, who is stepping down.

Thursday’s announcement at the Utah Board of Regents’ meeting, broadcast online, was interrupted with loud cheers and applause.

“I’m so honored to have the opportunity to join with you in leading this great institution forward,” Watkins said, flanked by her husband, Bob Young. “I thought about 10 people would come today, so I’m incredibly touched.”

Watkins was one of three finalists for UI provost in 2012. Former Chancellor Phyllis Wise eventually chose Ilesanmi Adesida, then dean of the UI College of Engineering. Both Wise and Adesida later resigned in 2015 following an email controversy on campus.

Watkins spent 20 years at the UI as a professor, associate provost for undergraduate education, vice provost, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She left in August 2013 for her current job at Utah.

She began her academic career at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Utah Board of Regents Chair Daniel Campbell called her a “true leader,” saying she had endeared herself to students, faculty, staff and regents in her short tenure at Utah.

“Dr. Watkins brings both an outside perspective based on years of leadership experience at the University of Illinois as well as significant familiarity with the University of Utah,” he said in a release. “She is a collaborative leader who is committed to ensuring exceptional educational and research opportunities for students and faculty. She also is widely respected by our community partners.”

Watkins first joined the UI in 1993 as an assistant professor in the department of speech and hearing science.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa and doctorate from the University of Kansas.