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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins speaks after being inaugurated as the university's 16th president during a ceremony at Kingsbury Hall on the U. campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah President Ruth Watkins was inaugurated the 16th leader of the state's flagship institution Friday afternoon during a ceremony in Kingsbury Hall.

She is the first woman president of the university, which was founded in 1850.

Watkins, who assumed the presidency of the U. last spring, said the university has an obligation to students, the state and the nation to be "a higher education innovator leading the way in developing the creative strategies that enable access and completion, deliver value and ensure exceptional experiences in higher education and health care and drive discoveries that improve lives."

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins is presented with a pillow that reads "A Utah Woman Am I" after being inaugurated as the university's 16th president during a ceremony at Kingsbury Hall on the U. campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

She asked for university community's help in accelerating the U.'s momentum.

"With your support, there is much we can do together. The stakes are high. The work matters. Staying true to the values of our founders we can ensure a vibrant future for the people of Utah and do our part to make a difference in the world," Watkins said in her inaugural address.

The audience included elected officials, college and university administrators, community members, donors and students.

Harris Simmons, chairman of the Utah State Board of Regents, draped a University of Utah presidential medallion around Watkins neck to great applause, but audience members cheered loudest as she was presented a pillow that said "A Utah Woman Am I."

Prior to the investiture, Simmons extended the Board of Regents' charge to Watkins, which included enhancing the undergraduate experience, including improving access and affordability.

"Great progress has been made. This work must continue and accelerate," Simmons said.

The charge also included cultivating the U.'s research mission, enhancing the U.'s track record of bringing innovative research to market and fostering the health sciences mission "through innovative and compassionate health care," he said.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox extended a welcome to Watkins on behalf of the state of Utah, noting that women now lead half of the state's public colleges and universities. Those institutions serve 70 percent of state's public college students.

"If you look at her background, if you look at her resume, it is second to none. There is no one more qualified to assume the role of president of the University of Utah, the flagship university, than President Watkins," Cox said.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Harris Simmons, chairman of the Utah Board of Regents, puts a University of Utah presidential medallion over the head of U. President Ruth V. Watkins during her inauguration at Kingsbury Hall on the U. campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

Watkins 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.

Watkins, the U.'s former senior vice president for academic affairs, traveled about the state this summer, Cox said.

"I saw her reaching out to people who have never heard from the University of Utah, they've only heard of the University of Utah," Cox said.

Watkins gained understanding and insight among Utahns who feel lost, disaffected and underrepresented, he said.

"She was there to listen and there to learn," Cox said.

David P. Gardner, the 10th president of the U. and president emeritus of the University of California, said as the leader of "one of the nation's most admired public universities, President-elect Watkins' views and opinions on issues concerning higher education in the United States will be both sought and heard."

Watkins took note of the U.'s history, which its founders started just three years after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.

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"From that humble beginning grew a major research university with global stature. Over decades of growth and change, the university has maintained its commitment to inquiry, innovation and public service. Inherent in the U.'s values is a legacy of community — of joining together for the common good," she said.

Watkins said she is confident the U.'s stakeholders we can "work together to achieve even greater heights in our quest to make this one of the truly great public universities in the country, even as it fulfills the hopes, dreams and needs of the people in this great state."

"Our aim: To advance our stature as the University of Utah, while increasing our impact as the University for Utah."