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Weekly Wisdom Episode 8: Transcript of Conversation With Ruth Watkins, University of Utah President

Weekly Wisdom Episode 8: Transcript of Conversation With Ruth Watkins, University of Utah President

Note: This interview, Episode 8 of the Weekly Wisdom Series, originally aired on June 8, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Ruth Watkins:
It's an incredible privilege to be able to do work that matters. And I think in this moment, both in terms of the pandemic and in terms of our focus on the enormous price of inequality and systemic inequity and racism, we have the opportunity to be part of leading in higher education, a place that really can transform lives, support health and well being and make a difference on issues like racism, openly address white privilege and take action to change racism.

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to "Innovating Together," a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host, Bridget Burns. 

You're about to watch another episode of "Start the Week With Wisdom," which for those of you are at home, if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor. And we want to talk to them about how they're navigating the challenge of this moment. We're in a really unique time, and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating, and hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope. 

Paul Fain:
So this week, my first week, we're talking with Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. Ruth, thanks for joining us. 

Ruth Watkins:
Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity. 

Paul Fain:
So to start, you like all of your peers, have quite a bit going on. How are you holding up right now? 

Ruth Watkins:
You know, quite well, really. I'm an optimistic person by nature. So that helps. And I would also say I do miss people. So I appreciate the chance to connect virtually, and we're beginning to do a few things back on campus. And that helps a lot too. So pretty positive overall. 

Bridget Burns:
Great. So now with everything going on with the global pandemic, as well as the vocal support that we're seeing for – against racial injustice throughout this country, it's a very complex time to be a leader. It's a complex time to be a university president. And so I'm just wondering about – if you can share, for those of us who may not be familiar with your leadership philosophy and kind of how you're looking at this moment, how are you inspiring folks? How are you able to see a path forward when there is just really so much going on and so many challenging circumstances? 

Ruth Watkins:
It's an incredible privilege to be able to do work that matters. And I think in this moment, both in terms of the pandemic and in terms of our clear focus on the enormous price of inequality and systemic inequity and racism, I think we have the opportunity to be part of leading in higher education, a place that really can transform lives, support health and well being, and make a difference on issues like racism, openly address white privilege and take action to change racism.

What a privilege that is. I have enormous gratitude that I have a job that's busy and important and occupies my energy and my talents. And I'm really grateful for that. It is an incredible privilege to be able to lead in an important time like this. And I think keeping that lens helps with staying on the positives of things and not being overcome by the challenges. 

Bridget Burns:
That's great. 

Paul Fain:
So everybody right now is experiencing a tremendous amount of uncertainty and anxiety, and yet decisions need to be made. How do you inject optimism and purpose as a leader in times where folks really don't know what's going to happen next week, let alone in six months? 

Ruth Watkins:
So I think helping everyone understand and join with you is important. So we need participation. People will support what they help create. And people will enact what they believe in and help create. So using groups and gaining wisdom from many, very important aspect. I think also communication is always important for a university leader, and probably for any leader to think about multiple modalities, communicating many messages many times. And being patient and staying with that; demonstrating kindness toward each other matters a great deal. 

But continuity, communication, information, and really I think acknowledging the fact that there is quite a bit of anxiety around uncertainty. And we're in a situation that is new for all of us. So I think as we face this challenge, staying open to that, letting people know this is dynamic and changing, giving them sources of information, and involving as many people as you can in planning, all those are strategies that really help. 

Bridget Burns:
That’s useful. So you're in a rare situation where you're president at an institution where you also served as provost. There are very few people who have that experience, where many have been provost, but to understand the real machinations of the job on your own campus, and the complexity of both positions, has got to be really unique. What I'm curious is, if there are any leadership lessons from either when you were provost or back in Illinois or early in your presidency. 

I mean I know that you've been president since 2018. Are there other leadership lessons that you are leaning on today that are helping you try and navigate this moment?

Ruth Watkins:
So I think it really is helpful to know something about the institution that you're leading as you come in. Maybe the most important lesson of leadership is how very important relationships are. Relationships of trust and respect or how things get done in a university, maybe how things get done everywhere. So you want to spend time with people, know your institution well, build on those relationships; that social capital will really help in difficult times, and it also helps in great times, because it helps you get work done. 

I think a philosophy that I live by is that alone we can do very little, but together we can do a lot. And that's Helen Keller's wisdom, not mine. You want to engage the institution. That's – the leader's job is inspire, motivate, help, create the conditions where everyone can succeed. But it has to be a shared agenda. No one of us can really make that much difference. Collectively enormous progress is possible. And I think that has been a real privilege here at the University of Utah. 

I have found such a collaborative spirit and a collective that really wanted to move the University of Utah forward. And we've been able to do a lot in terms of the success of our students, the impact of our research, and our role, what I like to say is not just the University of Utah but the University for Utah. Much has happened here because of that spirit of the collective impact and importance of the university. 

Paul Fain:
So obviously a time of profound rapid change, maybe even unprecedented. You know, one of my jobs as a journalist is to not ask speculative questions. It's pretty hard these days. So Dr. Watkins, I won't ask you to predict the future but more to ask, you know, what from this movement, whether it's the activism around racism, you know, the pivot to online and all – the many pieces that go into that – do you hope will really stick around for the long run? 

Any change that you've been through at the university lately that you hope is permanent? 

Ruth Watkins:
So it really is a great question. And I think it's important for us to say, really acknowledge that we – the pandemic, when the current situation in the world has helped us all build an awareness of the enormous crisis of inequality. And that is vital, that we use this moment and build on it and change and act and be different and to recognize systemic inequalities, processes, and policies in our institutions that have perpetuated inequality and racism, I think unintentionally, but it doesn't matter. 

This is a moment of change. The pandemic has laid bare for us health disparities, unequal access to health care. I think that is – this is a moment where we can be different, where we can act differently, where we can change as institutions. We will lead society when we do that. I see around me an incredible spirit of kindness, of outreach to others, certainly the outpouring of our donor community towards our student emergency fund and towards research in health disparities around COVID-19. I hope that stays with us.

And I guess one last thing I hope that stays with us is, the pace has slowed in terms of evenings and weekends. And I think the gift of time to spend with each other, however we've been, right now it's families and small groups; but I hope that we learn something about our place and about using our time for the collective good. I think that may be a lesson we could take from the pandemic. 

Bridget Burns:
That's super helpful. For those folks who are working at home, well, first off, who are watching at home, they are working at home mostly likely and they have kids at home running underneath their feet and, you know, the work-life balance is challenging, there's a whole lot happening. For other college presidents, they, you know, you have these long term things like a strategic plan and you have, you know, all these initiatives you need to move forward. 

I'm just curious about how in the moment of just so much swirl, how do you moderate yourself, how do you make yourself focus on the right thing and not be caught up in the noise? Like are there any tips that help you, you know, you've been through enough crises now in your career to figure out how to do this? And I'm just curious because I know that this is something other people struggle with. 

How do you tune it out and figure out exactly what to focus on and what to pay attention to in the midst of challenging very complex moments? 

Ruth Watkins:
I find it pretty helpful to remember how much the mission matters. I think one thing that we've learned through this pandemic, and certainly looking at public opinion polls helps us see this, America – frankly the world – is looking to leading research universities to solve societal problems, to lead the way. And the trust and respect that Americans now have for their research universities has really grown through the pandemic. 

That helps me to focus because it reminds me how much the mission matters. The mission matters in terms of delivering research that will help people in America and the world. The mission matters in terms of our capacity to help the people who come to us finish the degrees that they came for, and not to leave before that. And the mission matters a great deal right now as we think about how we put Americans back to work. 

And that will be learning new skills. And as the world changes, how do we help upscale and rescale those who need the opportunity to re-enter the economy in a new way? I think whenever you get caught up in an urgent situation of the moment – of course those are important and they're going to keep happening – but it does help to step back and remember the mission. Why are we doing the work we do, and who's counting on us to deliver it? Our communities, our stakeholders, our people, and that's the research we do, the education we provide, the way we engage with and uplift communities, and certainly right now the healthcare that an academic medical center provides to stakeholders from the state and the region.   

So the focus on the mission, why we're here and what a privilege it is to move that mission forward and how many people are depending on us, those things help me refocus on the important work that we do every day. 

Paul Fain:
You know, it wasn't like higher education was in a tranquil state before all of this. A lot of change, whether it's the demographic cliff policy, etc., a lot going on. Now that's been accelerated greatly. What are some of the areas – looking beyond your university, you're watching for change most closely across the academy. What are some of the key areas that you think right now we might see rapid evolutionary change?

Ruth Watkins:
So I think it's a pretty interesting question. And if anything, I would say the pandemic, the first day we were at the University of Utah that we going online, we also had an earthquake that day, which did seem like kind of a lot all at once in the middle of March. And as I have thought about this and thought about the future, about disruption and uncertainty, it has made me realize that building greater continuity in our operations is going to be pretty critical for us going forward. 

Continuity in terms of education delivery and hybrid, offerings, being able to shift to remote learning and even to help more people who cannot access us in person, and that has kept them out of completely higher education or engaging in higher education; continuity in how we do our work, being able to use a remote workforce more effectively. 

There's enormous opportunity for the institutions that then innovate and be creative and move ahead assertively. And I think that opportunity to better serve people is all around us. I think one of the most remarkable things as we think about the future is we were, you know, many academic medical centers, making fairly slow progress in working towards telehealth delivery. 

The pandemic accelerated that massively. I think it would have taken us a decade to make the kind of progress we have in telehealth in a matter of weeks. Quite remarkable and very positive reports from our stakeholders and consumers about what telehealth has done for them and how it fits their life better. So that is, I think, pretty important for us to be asking those questions, and as we think about how we want to go forward.

We don't want to return to the way we were. We went to return to better. And that's the task in front of us. 

Bridget Burns:
We have a question that came in from LinkedIn. First off, John Pryor made a comment that Jeff Selingo grew a beard, which – so Paul, that's – you're his doppelganger now. But this question is, how do you balance the mission the university and concerns of faculty and staff, especially ones who are older and have health concerns about face-to-face operations in the fall? 

And I would just say in general, John, I think that every president is thinking about balancing not just those but probably a million other pieces of competing requests and needs. And I think it's moving slowly and taking in – that's why they have like five different SWAT teams inside their institutions figure out alternate scenarios. 

But I'm curious, Ruth, if you have a response to this question as well. 

Ruth Watkins:
Yeah, I think John's question is a great one, and one we get asked a lot. So of course, you know, any time you're in a, in a town hall or a discussion with faculty and staff, the question will come up, shouldn't we just stay remote in the fall? Is there a way we could do that? And I think that the tricky parts of answering that question are, many of us believe that what happens on a college campus face to face in a research university has enormous power, that connecting and engaging outside and beyond the classroom is powerful as well; that there is genuine value in that. 

And so staying on the sidelines is hard to do. Then the second piece of that, of course, is we don't really know how long the pandemic is going to last. It may be with us for quite a while when we listen to public health experts. Unsettling as that is, that is relevant, as is the fact that our long-term viability as colleges, universities and the mission we provide to society, it's pretty important. We believe in it. 

So kind of as we chart the path forward, we are charting a path of managing risk as successfully and well as we can. And of course, on the specific question of students or faculty or staff who may have health conditions that make them more vulnerable, we are working hard to provide temporary modifications in how things are delivered and in how we work, to accommodate those, to address those when we can. 

That work is in play as has been noted, kind of dynamic. But I think providing some guidance there and some alternative and temporary work modifications will be helpful. And there may be students who for whatever reason feel that staying online and being able to access the university that way, as we have made possible, is the best option for them. 

So we're trying to create this more dynamic, fluid environment that allows some adaptations that meet both needs as well as they can, while continuing to deliver on the important mission that society asks of us and what they depend on. So managing risk thoughtfully and as well as we can is the order of the day. It's a good question and a hard question. And we are all on it and on this journey together. So thanks. 

Bridget Burns:
Paul, you have this last one. I would just add, I made a tweet last week about the topic of asking college presidents to describe in detail and commit to their plans for fall, that it was the same thing as asking me or anyone else if they want to lose 20 pounds. Yeah, I'd like to. Doesn't mean I'm going to. And also, nobody has a crystal ball. Like there's a million reasons why these, you know, we're going to have to walk very slowly into the future and that's why the multiple scenarios. 

But anyway, yeah, so thank you for answering that. And Paul, did you want to wrap with a last question? 

Paul Fain:
Yeah. You know, I assume you don't have a tremendous amount of free time, even before all this. But I wonder, you know, what are you leaning on in terms of art that you consume – books, movies, etcetera – to kind of help you get through this crazy time? 

Ruth Watkins:
Well, I am an avid reader. A lot about higher education, but I'm not going to say that right now, because I think sometimes you need to draw lessons for higher education from other places. So I'm reading Richard Powers' The Overstory, which is just a phenomenal book, a vast book with a lot of wisdom and a lot of lessons. Some of them are painful and difficult, and some of them are hopeful. 

It's also just beautiful writing. So I think having the capacity to think about big issues in the natural world and the interconnectedness of humans and the environment, and just a powerfully written novel, it's good for everybody, too. So thank you. 

Paul Fain:
You know, I read that one, and it was amazing, and it was one of those novels that I said, I could never do that. Just an absolute tour de force. 

Ruth Watkins:
Yeah, I agree. A very, very gifted person. 

Paul Fain:

Bridget Burns:
I still don't know where or when you're finding the time to read, but I am very impressed. You're not just reading – just even the news about changes in higher ed and all the various publications. So well, President Watkins, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. We really appreciate you inspiring us with a sense of perspective about what it's like to navigate this moment, and really kind of putting a human face on the leadership of these institutions. We know that too often people are I think not understanding the complexity of the job and they don't have enough empathy for really what it's taking. And this is a moment where we need the best leaders in the field and we want to definitely be lifting them up. So I count you definitely in that group. 

So for those of you who are at home, if you're looking for past episodes, and also this one, "Weekly Wisdom," you can go to the UIA's YouTube channel. But thank you again for folks at home, and for Paul Fain for stepping in and pinch hitting. We – you are a fantastic cohost and we look forward to working again together. So for those of you at home, we hope you have a wonderful week and we hope this is giving you a little bit of inspiration. So thanks, everybody. 

Ruth Watkins:
Thank you. Thanks for including me. 


Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Ruth Watkins, President, University of Utah
Dr. Ruth V. Watkins, who became the University of Utah's 16th President in 2018, is the first woman to serve in that office. President Watkins’ signature initiatives include degree completion, innovative student funding models, strong partnerships with community stakeholders, uniting the campus as One U to drive innovation in research, education, and operational efficiency, and addressing grand societal challenges such as mental health and interpersonal violence. Prior to assuming office, she spent almost five years as U. of U.'s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, while also serving as a full professor in the Department of Linguistics. Dr. Watkins was previously the Dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne - Applied Research Institute. She began her academic career in 1989 as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as Program Director of the Callier Center for Communication Disorders. She earned her master's and Ph.D. degrees in speech-language pathology at the University of Kansas, and her bachelor's at University of Northern Iowa. In 2003, Dr. Watkins was named a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Note: On January 12, 2021, Dr. Watkins announced that she has accepted a position as president of Strada Impact, and will be stepping down from her leadership position at the University of Utah in April.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, Inside Higher Ed
Paul Fain joined Inside Higher Ed in September 2011 after six years covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly in Charlottesville, Virginia, he has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper, and Mother Jones. His journalism awards include one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, he plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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