SALT LAKE CITY — Ruth Watkins, the University of Utah’s incoming president, wants to increase access to degree programs and find ways to help more students complete their educations.

“Access without people leaving with the degree they came for is a very hollow promise,” Watkins said. “We have to think about how we can get people here and get them through their degree.”

Watkins, who starts April 2, will be the first female president of the university. She was selected unanimously by the Utah Board of Regents earlier this month to replace David Pershing, The Salt Lake Tribune reported .

Watkins joined the Salt Lake City campus as a senior vice president over academic affairs in 2013. She previously worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 20 years, rising from an associate professor to a dean.

She has earned a reputation of being personable, collaborative and determined.

“She has a rare combination of superb intellect and extraordinary people skills that has really served the university well,” said Fred Esplin, the university’s vice president for advancement.

Watkins will be one of three female presidents in the Utah System of Higher Education. The rebalancing of genders in campus leadership roles is healthy, she said, as it demonstrates that there are opportunities in higher education.

“It is important that the University of Utah, as a public research university, is everyone’s university — that we are a place where talented people from all backgrounds feel welcome and have the opportunity to succeed,” Watkins said.

While Watkins will be the first female president, that fact shouldn’t diminish her credentials and qualifications, said Sylvia Torti, dean of the university’s Honors College.

“It’s always nice when we break a barrier because then we can stop talking about it being a barrier,” Torti said. “On a national level, having a female president will go against what many people’s preconceived notions are of the state of Utah.”

Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune,

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