Three of Utah’s higher education institutions have named new presidents this year. And while new leaders always usher in changes, there’s been one big change that the three institutions have in common: Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, and Westminster College named women to lead their institutions. They join the female presidents of Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College to make a group of five female higher education presidents in Utah. It’s an unprecedented leadership change in a state that has dire executive-level gender diversity. Here, we profile four presidents who are proudly leading their higher education institutions.
Utah State University
Noelle Cockett was raised on a cattle ranch in eastern Montana, by a hard-working, dedicated woman who taught President Cockett to never give up. “My mother enrolled in college and received a nursing degree while raising six children as a single parent after my father passed away,” she says. “Her focus on education was influential in my decision to attend college.”
After high school, Pres. Cockett left home and pursued veterinary science and later earned a graduate degree in animal genetics. “Attending Oregon State University as a graduate student solidified my passion for research discovery,” she says. “After five years with the USDA as a research geneticist in central Nebraska, I found myself drawn back to academia.”
In 1990, Pres. Cockett joined Utah State University (USU) as a researcher and assistant professor in the department of animal, dairy, and veterinary science in the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences. With a passion for research, she never envisioned herself joining the university’s administrative ranks, but soon found an internal desire to help not just students, but the entire university succeed.
“The more I was given opportunities in administration, the more I appreciated the work that goes into running a program, a college, and a university,” she says, adding that she still has a passion for—and has an active role in—USU’s highly regarded research programs.
And she’s been able to put those research skills to good use. “I have used my skills as a researcher to resolve many of the issues that I deal with as president,” she says. “First, I develop the question to be answered, then I base my decision on information, data, and past work, and once completed, I reflect on lessons learned and future work needed.”
Named to USU’s top leadership post in 2016, Pres. Cockett hopes to continue growing the university’s reputation as one of the country’s best land-grant institutions. “I am extremely proud of our accomplishments in education, discovery, and outreach, and I will continue to promote those accomplishments across the state and the country,” she says. “I want all who hear about us, not just those people who are directly involved with USU, to know about the quality of USU.”
Pres. Cockett is also dedicated to making USU a university where everyone belongs. “I am striving to ensure that USU is a campus where students and faculty know the importance of dialogue and debate free of obstacles that create climates of intimidation,” she says. “The importance of the free exchange of ideas in higher education should always be paramount and should be done in respectful, thoughtful and collegial ways.”
As someone who once wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to attend university, Pres. Cockett believes that higher education is life-changing. “I was given the opportunity to obtain a college education and as president, I want others, particularly those people who do not have college in their background, to have that same opportunity.”
LRN2LVE. It’s the message that’s displayed on Beth Dobkin’s license plate, and it’s a mantra she lives by. “It could have a few different meanings—learn to live, learn to love, even learn to leave. But the emphasis is on learning,” President Dobkin says. “Life is all about learning.”
As Westminster College’s newly minted president, Pres. Dobkin hopes to instill a love of learning in all Westminster students. “People think that higher education is about sitting in the classroom, but education—especially higher education—is about so much more than that. It’s about learning in all of its forms,” she says. “I think most people beginning in early adulthood and throughout their lives are looking for identity, community, and purpose, and that’s what higher education is for. It’s more than skill development—it’s part of that messy human experience that helps us discover who we are. Higher education helps us define where we belong, how we can create community, and how we can find meaning and purpose in our life.”
Pres. Dobkin most recently served as provost and vice president of academic affairs at St. Mary’s College in California. Her list of achievements and accolades is long. In her former position, she oversaw major capital projects and secured million-dollar grants. She was named the “Most Influential Women in Business in the Bay Area” by San Francisco Business Times in 2015, 2014, and 2013. She established the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence, a Bias Incident Response Team, campus-wide diversity training, and was the college’s first chief diversity officer. Under her leadership, St. Mary’s College experienced its highest graduation rates in its history. She promises to bring that same passion and dedication to Westminster.
“We’re at a time when higher education is more misunderstood and more important than ever. We face a resource challenge that is intense and complex. It takes strong leadership, great teams and creative collaboration to understand the needs of not just students, but of the region and the country,” she says.
Though Westminster is a private college, Pres. Dobkin hopes to work with Utah’s Higher Education System to enhance Utah’s entire higher education sector. “There’s great potential in partnerships among all universities and colleges,” she says. “I’m excited to be in a place where colleges and universities can collaborate and help develop students and develop teachers, and help people develop the skills needed for today’s workforce.”
With a storied career in higher education spanning 30 years, Pres. Dobkin says she can’t see herself anywhere else. “When you’re in higher education, you have a hand in shaping the next leaders. You get to work with really smart, talented people who share this dedication to make the world a better place. I love it.”
Salt Lake Community College
Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) President Deneece Huftalin recognized early in her career that she belonged in higher education. After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Utah, she took a job at Stanford University in the admissions office. The university’s energetic environment was captivating, and when she realized she could devote her life to higher education, she never looked back.
President Huftalin spent the next several years working in higher education, while also earning her own graduate degrees. She worked at public and private universities across the country until moving back to the Beehive State in 1992 and joining SLCC as its director of academic and career advising. Her passion for students and the Utah community helped fuel her rise to the top. In 2014, Pres. Huftalin was named SLCC’s eighth president.
Today, she is proud to be leading an institution that has a strong legacy of welcoming all students. It’s a legacy she plans to strengthen. “What I love most about the college is how diverse our student body is. It’s diverse in terms of age—this year’s graduating class was 16 to 69. We have remarkable racial and ethnic diversity. And we are very diverse in socioeconomic status,” she says. “When that diversity shows up in a classroom of 30 and everyone brings different perspectives—that learning is unmatched. You cannot learn like that in a homogenous environment. Our diversity is our largest asset.”
As SLCC’s leader-in-chief, Pres. Huftalin’s goals include strengthening student completion numbers and improving workforce responsiveness, as well as closing minority achievement gaps. She also strives to continue SLCC’s tradition of community partnership, specifically by developing students that have the necessary skills to be successful in today’s economy.
“A lot of folks focus on teaching, which is critical, but what I enjoy about the president’s role is it widens the scope of experience in terms of helping lead and unite a whole community with a variety of business ventures and values and goals,” she says. “We do incredible work with workforce partners. We have a dual mission that I’m proud of—we help students who want to get a skill and get a job, and we’re also a place where students can get their start and transfer to a larger university, like the University of Utah.”
At the end of the day, Pres. Huftalin uses engagement to test her level of success. “As a president, when I’m engaging with students, faculty members, and staff, if they’re highly engaged in the work that we’re doing and if they’re passionate about it, that’s special,” she says. “When we’re all working toward a common goal and there’s a level of respect among people—when you feel that energy and you see movement towards it, that’s success.
Ruth Watkins, PhD
University of Utah
Early in her career, Ruth Watkins recognized that working in higher education was an opportunity to be a positive influence for change not just for students and faculty, but for the entire community. As the University of Utah’s 16th president, and the first female president, Watkins wants to brand the U as the university for Utah. “That means being recognized as a model public university that delivers unmatched value in higher education and health care while making critical contributions to the social, economic, and cultural well-being of our state.”
President Watkins grew up in a small Iowa town. Like many students, she went to the local university—University of Northern Iowa—where she searched for her career calling. It wasn’t until she was nudged into academia by a professor and mentor that she recognized her passion for education and research. “It is incredibly rewarding to being part of launching the next generation of workers, entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators, and leaders for our community. We’re getting people prepared for the next phase of life, as contributing members of society.”
Pres. Watkins completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas, where she studied child language and speech language pathology. She became a faculty member at the University of Texas at Dallas and then at the University of Illinois, where she spent 20 years serving in various leadership and academic roles before joining the U in 2013.
Pres. Watkins is excited to lead the U during such an energetic time. “As I reflect on our key tasks in the next few years, we must continue to accelerate student success through completion of a degree, given the relevance for individual well-being and the needs of our state. We have a distinct advantage in the value of education—high quality at reasonable cost—and I hope we can maintain this edge in the years ahead.”
Beyond helping students, Pres. Watkins finds it rewarding to work with faculty who are engaged in groundbreaking research. One of her goals is to help brilliant people come together to solve society’s most pressing problems. “One way we are doing this is through the Transformative Excellence Program. For example, faculty members from biology are working with colleagues in human genetics to better understand genetics and evolution and applications for human health,” she says. “Another example is the Society, Water and Climate Research Group, which brings together faculty from biology, political science, atmospheric sciences and geography to think about, among other issues, sustainable water practices—a critical issue for Utah.”
Being a key part of the Utah community—whether it’s by solving critical issues, developing workforce-ready talent, or being a place where Utahns can gather to watch a game or see a play—is a tradition Pres. Watkins is proud to continue. “And at a very personal level,” she says, “I think the work really matters. Higher education transforms lives.”