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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins is stepping down from her role in April to work for Strada Education Network, the university announced Tuesday.
Watkins will become president of Strada Impact and lead research efforts to improve access to college and degree completion, according to a university statement.
"Ruth is one of the top leaders in postsecondary education driving innovation and building an education-workforce system that equips more learners to succeed — today and in the jobs of the future," said Strada Education Network President and CEO William D. Hansen in a statement. "The success she has demonstrated through her student-centered approach will help scale Strada Impact's work across the country to improve lives through postsecondary education and work. I very much look forward to the vision, the capabilities, and the passion she will bring to delivering Strada's mission."
The Utah Board of Higher Education will start its search for Watkins' replacement immediately after forming a search committee by the end of January.
In a letter sent to students, faculty and staff, Watkins said it's been a privilege to serve as the school's president but she looks forward to her career with Strada.
"I believe the work of Strada Impact is more important today than ever before because completing college and securing employment will be especially crucial for millions of young Americans post-pandemic," Watkins wrote.
Leaders from the university's athletics department said Watkins was supportive of student-athletes at the school.
"Ruth Watkins is a tremendous advocate for our student-athletes and has been so supportive of the role that athletics plays at the University of Utah," Mark Harlan, the U.'s athletic director, said in a statement.
Tom Farden, the head coach of Utah Gymnastics, told KSL.com that Watkins made an effort to personally support the women in the school's gymnastics program.
"She was a woman who inspired our women — to empower them and think about the possibilities of leading universities in the P5," Farden said. "And the things that she accomplished were a long list. She would come to our meets, stop by our practice, would send me texts after big meets, so, personally, I'm going to miss Ruth and her leadership and everything she's done for our women's gymnastics program, but also the entire university."
Watkins was inaugurated in 2018 as the school's 16th president and the first woman to ever hold the position.
In October of 2018, tragedy struck the school when student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, 21, was killed on campus by an ex-boyfriend who had been harassing her. In the months after her death, an investigation found that McCluskey had reached out to the school's police force for help — help that ultimately never came.
In response to the internal investigation, the school revamped its police department and created multiple new safety positions at the school.
In September of 2020, protesters marched on campus, calling for Watkins' resignation, saying the school mishandled McCluskey's case.
McCluskey's parents, Jill and Matt, have become staunch advocates for their late daughter and allege that her death was preventable had the school handled her domestic violence case appropriately. The pair sued the university and reached a $13.5 settlement in November for two lawsuits against the school. In response to the lawsuits, Watkins maintained the school wasn't responsible for the death.
As president, Watkins was passionate about student success, diversity, safety and student mental health, according to the university. Under her leadership, donor contributions and research funding increased, leading the university to reach its capital campaign goal of $2 billion, three years ahead of schedule in December. A record $603 million was also raised in sponsored research, according to a news release.
In November of 2019, the school joined the Association of American Universities, making it one of the top 65 research universities in the country.
"Over the past three years, President Watkins has provided steady leadership, led transformative change at the U. and built a team as dedicated as she is to ensuring our university fulfills its mission and continues its tremendous growth and rise in national recognition," Christian Gardner, chairman of the University of Utah Board of Trustees, said in a statement.