Who will lead University of Utah? 3 finalists to be named next week

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on
Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah could have a new president before the start of fall term on Aug. 23.

The Utah Board of Higher Education, which hires public college and university presidents, is close to releasing the names and biographies of three finalists for the next president of the state's flagship institution. The names are expected to be released within a matter of days.

Once the names are made public, candidates will be in Salt Lake City to participate in a series of on-campus meetings, public forums and interviews.

The U.'s 17th president is expected to be selected on Aug. 5, said Harris Simmons, chairman of the higher education board, during a meeting on Utah State University's Logan campus Friday.

Simmons said the presidential search committee winnowed the finalists to 11 candidates, two of whom dropped out. Nine applicants have been interviewed.

"We will be forwarding three very strong nominees to the board to consider and we will be meeting on Aug. 5. We hope that most of you will be able to participate in that daylong event on the University of Utah campus. It will start early that morning and wrap up, we expect at 5 o'clock," he said.

Deputy Commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education Geoffrey Landward said the three finalists will meet with university constituency groups and individually with the university board of trustees on Aug. 4.

"We'll be hosting public forums in the afternoon with each candidate where anybody from the public can participate, ask questions and we'll also view it live on a livestream," said Landward, who is general counsel.

The Utah Board of Higher Education will interview the finalists the following day.

"We hope that we'll come to a successful conclusion and be able to announce a new president on the 5th of August, so (it's) moving along nicely," Simmons said.

President Ruth Watkins, selected the university's 16th president in 2018, stepped down in April after accepting the position of president of Strada Impact. Strada is a national social impact organization that works to strengthen pathways between education and employment.

Dr. Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health and executive dean of the School of Medicine, has been serving as interim president. He did not apply for the position.

Watkins was named president after a nine-month search conducted after then-President Dave Pershing announced in 2017 he would retire from the presidency to return to teaching and research. Pershing remained in the position until Watkins took charge in the spring of 2018.

Pershing announced his retirement in the aftermath of a high-profile rift between University of Utah Health and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The public power struggle was followed by months of negotiation, culminating in a new agreement between the university and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation that addresses the governance and finances of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The conflict came to a head with the sudden firing of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO and Director Mary Beckerle by Pershing and University of Utah Health CEO Vivian Lee. Beckerle was reinstated a short time later, and Lee resigned from her administrative position.

Watkins' presidency was marked with several accomplishments, among them admission to the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Other top priorities included diversity, student mental health, and wellness and safety.

Many of the safety reforms were implemented following the on-campus slaying of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot outside her dorm in 2018 by a man she had dated. McCluskey's parents sued the university and in November 2020 reached a $13.5 million settlement of their two lawsuits.

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