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Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News
Newly appointed University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins shakes hands with Dan Lundergan, chief operating officer of Utah Health, while Gordon Crabtree, CEO of University Hospitals and Clinics, stands by at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Watkins will succeed retiring U. president David Pershing, who has held the position since 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in its nearly 168-year history, a woman will serve as president of the University of Utah.

Ruth V. Watkins was selected the U.’s 16th president by unanimous vote of the Utah State Board of Regents, which met Thursday in a suite above Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The conference room erupted in cheers, thundering applause and a standing ovation as Vice Chairman Harris Simmons placed the motion to appoint Watkins before the full board of regents.

Watkins said she was honored to have the opportunity "to lead this great institution forward."

"I have to say I thought about 10 people would come today, so I'm incredibly touched as I look around this room," she said, noting she could likely call most people in the room by name.

As Utah's flagship public university, the U. "plays a vital role in the state, and increasingly the nation, in path-breaking research that solves societal challenges and educational opportunities that transform lives. My goal is to ensure that we continue and accelerate this trajectory in the years ahead," Watkins said.

Watkins, who has served as senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the U. since 2013, came to Utah from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She spent 20 years in leadership and faculty roles at Illinois, including associate provost for undergraduate education, vice provost and chief of staff, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her academic career began at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Women have been selected as finalists in previous presidential searches at the U. and one female administrator, Dr. Jerilyn McIntyre, twice served as interim president, but Watkins was first to be selected as president. McIntyre attended the announcement and extended a warm congratulations to Watkins.

Among the eight colleges and universities that comprise the Utah System of Higher Education, two others are led by women: Noelle E. Cockett, president of Utah State University, and Deneece G. Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College.

Watkins was hired by outgoing U. President David Pershing, who served in the same capacity under former U. president Bernie Machen. Pershing was selected as U. president in 2012.

Pershing will serve as president through the upcoming legislative session and Watkins will begin her presidency in the spring. Pershing will return to the faculty as a professor of chemical engineering and eventually retire, he said.

He said Thursday was "an interesting transition day. I'm actually quite happy and quite excited because I think Dr. Watkins is going to make an excellent president for the University of Utah."

Pershing said he selected Watkins as senior vice president "because she shared my vision of the importance of students."

As far as her personal gifts, Pershing said it was no exaggeration that Watkins could name most of people in the room. "I wish I had that skill. I don't," he said.

Pershing said the search came down to "three amazing candidates, which I think speaks to where the University of Utah is at."

The finalists included Nicholas P. Jones, executive vice president and provost at Pennsylvania State University, and Thomas Katsouleas, executive vice president and provost of the University of Virginia. Like Pershing, both Jones and Katsouleas are engineering scholars.

Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler said Watkins rose to the top of a highly qualified field of candidates for U. president.

“She is a superb and energetic administrator and a proven fundraiser who understands our community and will be able to continue the momentum of our flagship university,” Buhler said.

Watkins graduated with highest honors from the University of Northern Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in speech-language pathology. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in child language at the University of Kansas.

Her scholarship focuses on communication development and disabilities in young children.

Utah Board of Regents Chairman Dan Campbell said 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 where she has served as senior vice president and provost since 2013."

Campbell described Watkins as "a collaborative leader who is committed to ensuring exceptional educational and research opportunities for students and faculty."

She also is widely respected by the university's community partners, he said. Donors, alumni, community members and faculty packed the conference room where the regents took the historic vote.

"We appreciate the enthusiasm," said Campbell.

The presidential search started in May after Pershing announced he was moving up the timetable of his planned retirement in the aftermath of a public rift between the U. Health and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

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The events came to a head with the sudden firing of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle by Pershing and then-U. Health CEO Vivian Lee.

Beckerle was reinstated and Lee resigned from her administrative position.

Dr. Lorris Betz is serving as interim CEO of U. Health and senior vice president of health sciences until Lee’s successor is selected by the new U. president.

This fall, a new agreement was reached between the U. and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation with respect to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Pershing agreed to serve as president until his replacement was in place.