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Composite photo
Clockwise from top left: Astrid S. Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University; Bethami Dobkin, president of Westminster College; Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College; Ruth V. Watkins, president of the University of Utah; Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's official. Women lead half of Utah’s public colleges and universities.

That high-water mark was achieved five months ago when Microsoft executive Astrid Tuminez was selected to be president of Utah Valley University. Today is her first day on the job.

On Friday, Ruth Watkins will be inaugurated as the 16th president of the University of Utah and its first woman president.

Adam Fondren, Deseret News
FILE - Astrid S. Tuminez smiles to the crowd at the public meeting of the Board of Trustees where she is introduced as the seventh President of Utah Valley University in Orem on Friday, April 20, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - University of Utah President Ruth Watkins and Savanah and Austin Harlan get their "U" up after a press conference at at Rice Eccles Stadium on Monday, June 4, 2018.

Among the eight colleges and universities that comprise the Utah System of Higher Education, two others have women presidents: Noelle E. Cockett, selected president of Utah State University in 2016, and Deneece G. Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College since 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Utah State University President Noelle Cockett sits on the “block A” on the Logan campus on Nov 8, 2017.

Three of the four are the first women to lead their respective institutions, which combined, enroll 70 percent of students who attend state colleges and universities in Utah. Salt Lake Community College has had two women presidents, Huftalin and her predecessor, Cynthia Bioteau, who led the college from 2005-2013.

Perhaps more remarkable is that the percentage of colleges and universities in Utah led by women exceeds the national average.

According to the 2017 American College President Study, "the percentage of women who held the top job at colleges and universities stood at 30 percent in 2016, up just four percentage points from 2011."

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Salt Lake Community College President Deneece G. Huftalin is applauded during her inauguration on campus in Taylorsville Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.

Add new Westminster College President Bethami Dobkin to the mix and the percentage of Utah colleges and universities overall remains above the national average. Dobkin is the private college's 19th president and second woman to lead it. Peggy Stock was president from 1995-2002.

Susan Madsen, executive director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said the sea change in leadership at Utah colleges and universities will be particularly meaningful to students and young women aspiring to be education leaders themselves.

"You can't be what you can't see," said Madsen, the Orin R. Woodbury professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University.

"If you see that someone's there in that leadership role, especially in that top (position), our students will think a bit differently about that," she said.

There are other benefits to leadership of women on college campuses, according to the September 2017 Utah Women and Leadership Project research brief, "The Status of Women Leaders in Utah Education: A 2017 Update."

The brief quotes a 2009 White House project report that says "so much more is at stake than the mere numbers of women who have reached the top. The presence — or absence — of female academic leaders can have far-reaching influences not only on the institutions themselves, but beyond that, on the scope of research and knowledge that affects us all.

"Studies have shown that when prominent female academics are involved in research, for example, it can affect the nature of both the questions that are asked and the findings. Women in senior faculty positions and top-level leadership positions in academia provide male students, faculty and staff an important opportunity to work with talented women — an experience that will prove increasingly valuable."

Adam Fondren, Deseret News
FILE - Astrid S. Tuminez has her picture taken with students and staff at the public meeting of the Board of Trustees where she is introduced as the seventh President of Utah Valley University in Orem on Friday, April 20, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - University of Utah President Ruth Watkins and new Athletics Director Mark Harlan walk onto the football field at Rice Eccles Stadium on Monday, June 4, 2018.

Beyond the presidency, Madsen said it is also important to examine the leadership "pipeline," which starts with young women attending college and completing college as well as women seeking and attaining campus leadership roles such as cabinet-level positions and becoming academic deans and women who serve as regents and on college and university boards of trustees.

Women comprise 40 percent of all academic dean positions nationwide, according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project brief.

"In Utah, 22.9 percent of academic deans in public institutions and 31.6 percent in private institutions are women. However, there are substantial differences across Utah institutions," the 2017 brief states.

At Westminster, 60 percent of its deans are women. Forty-seven percent of the U.'s deans are female. When the brief was published last fall, Utah Valley University had no academic deans who are women, which appears unchanged according to a campus website. Snow College, which formerly had none, now has one.

The leadership track on college and university campuses is important because "the most common road to the presidency continues to be the traditional route of academic affairs," according to the American College President Study.

That was true for Watkins, who was the U.'s senior vice president of academic affairs when she was selected president of the U.

The same goes for Cockett, who had been executive vice president and provost at USU.

Prior to the current appointments by the State Board of Regents, only three women have been hired as presidents of the state colleges and universities in Utah. The first was Grace Sawyer Jones, president of the College of Eastern Utah from 1997 to 2001. Next was Ann Millner, president of Weber State University from 2002-2012 and now a state senator representing the Ogden area, and Bioteau at SLCC.

Tuminez has, perhaps, taken the most unconventional path to the presidency.

Most recently, she was the regional director for corporate, external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft.

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She was previously vice dean of research and assistant dean of executive education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, where she trained more than 2,000 government officials and private-sector professionals in leadership and organizational change.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, a master’s degree from Harvard University, and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When Tuminez was named president of UVU in April, she was asked about the significance of four women leading half of the state's colleges and universities.

"We have to be inspired and fearless and then step up when the opportunity comes," she said.