ruth watkins header
The University FOR Utah: Uniquely Poised to Shape the Future
We were excited when Dr. Ruth Watkins made time on her first day as the University of Utah’s 16th President to address the leadership team of U of U Health. Her message: your work matters. She answers your questions about community, collaboration, and connection.

#1: What are our strengths and where will we focus our energies in the near-term future?

We have a powerful opportunity to think and act like one university. We are a big place, but we are one. Our mission encompasses everything from basic science to research, to health and patient care, to education and engagement with our community. But when we think and act together—when we look for opportunities to collaborate—we are stronger.

The University of Utah Health has helped to make this a great institution—the kind that people want to come to from around the country. We provide an exceptional patient experience, and we would like to mirror that across the institution with an exceptional educational experience. That is an important part of our future.

We offer extraordinary quality at an affordable, value-focused level. That is incredible, and we stand out nationally among our peers for that. We do so because we are the University of Utah and the University FOR Utah. Every year, our health system engages with nearly 2 million patients. And every year, our university engages with 33,000 students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional. Of course we are the University FOR Utah. Economic development, research, innovation, patient care… those are our strengths, and those will be our important areas of focus in the near-term future.

#2: What are the most important things you would like faculty and staff to know?

There really are two themes. One is that, by virtually any metric, the University of Utah has never been stronger. Research funding has increased nearly 28% in the last four years, from $361 million to $459 million, with 5% of that growth coming in the last year alone. In addition, according to critical metrics like the quality of the experience and the patients’ perception of that experience, we are delivering in an incredible way.

I can also tell you that, from a student perspective, we’ve had the largest number of applicants ever, along with a steady increase in the academic preparation of those applicants, the diversity of those applicants, and the number of students coming in the door.

By several critical indicators, the university is thriving. It’s hard to deliver on all of that—academic preparation, diversity, and numbers—at once. It’s a good story, and I want to highlight the important role that faculty and staff play in making that happen.

People in the community will tell you their University of Utah story: how they connected with the institution, naming people that took a personal interest in them and talking about specific departments. That makes me very proud, and it also makes me very humble. It’s useful for us to reflect on what we do every day. Think about those people and their lives that we’re impacting, the experience they tell their neighbors and families about, and the way they feel about the institution.

It’s very powerful, and I wish everybody could hear the collective stories that I get to hear. Your work matters every day in this institution.

The Utah Way: A culture of collaboration and innovation

At Accelerate, we recognize individuals building culture across the health system. Culture builders work in the trenches, trying, failing, and trying again to lead change, gaining real-time experience in the process. The challenge is to translate that experience into knowledge—and then spread it.

With nearly five years of experience leading the University of Utah as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, Ruth Watkins has built fluency in our culture through real-time experience and expertise. Dr. Watkins is uniquely poised to shape the future of our organization.

#3: What is the university doing to prepare students for the real world?

Education drives innovation, and innovation creates jobs. That’s a virtuous cycle—and a very important one for economic development. Just as important, we are not preparing students only for their first job. We are preparing students for their fifth job, or their seventh job, or to create their eighth job. That is the world our students are going to experience.

We’re at our best when we engage our students in meaningful, real-world experiences during their education—experiences that allow them to translate what they learn in a classroom into active learning environments. At the University of Utah Health, you do that by engaging students in your work—or learning as students yourselves. You have the opportunity to connect with this university in your lives and your work. Take advantage of that educational component to hone your expertise. That’s a tremendous asset of working at a university, and it’s part of what makes the University of Utah a great place to be.

#4: What are the university’s most vital metrics and how do we want to be judged?

At the end of the day, the metrics that really matter are the metrics of impact. Where can we see that we’re making a difference? Patient care, patient experience, quality, outcomes—those are metrics of impact. As for rankings, ignore them at your own peril. Rankings are the outcome of doing the right thing. Rankings are not the goal.

When we know that we’re having an impact—that we’re making a difference in the care we provide or supporting people through the completion of their degree—the rankings will follow.

In 2016, Utah ranked first at having the healthiest population at the lowest cost, according to United Health Foundation and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This is your work: quality health outcomes at a very affordable cost. This demonstrates the high value that you provide. As a system, we have the capacity to improve health care delivery, training, and innovation to define a new model for the nation.

This is a great story, and it gets even better. When you plot the education we deliver, we’re doing the same thing: Utah has the highest level of affordable educational attainment, according to US News and World Report’s Best States for Higher Education and the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. We value education, and we are producing a high number of degrees at a remarkably affordable cost.

That is the outcome we should see. We are now in the season of college student recruitment; students have to decide where they’re going to college by May 1st. It couldn’t be a better time to tell the University of Utah story about value, high quality, positive outcomes, low debt, and affordable costs. This is a theme of which we should be proud.

"Medical care can only be great if the patient thinks it is."—A. Lorris Betz, MD 

As A. Lorris Betz, former senior vice president for University of Utah Health, says, “Medical care can only be great if the patient thinks it is.” The patient’s perception matters—what they feel, think, and experience in terms of medical care and quality.

The University of Utah Health is on the front lines doing that work and designing the processes of how we pay for and manage it. This work matters to the University of Utah and our long-term success.


Ruth Watkins

President, University of Utah

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest insights in health care equity, improvement, leadership, resilience, and more.