INDIANAPOLIS (January 12, 2021) — Strada Education Network today announced Ruth V. Watkins, Ph.D., as the new president of Strada Impact, where she will lead the social impact organization’s national research, philanthropy, policy, and thought leadership efforts to drive change in the education-workforce system and empower millions more learners to improve their lives and careers.
“Ruth is one of the top leaders in postsecondary education driving innovation and building an education-workforce system that equips more learners to succeed — today and in the jobs of the future,” said Strada Education Network President and CEO William D. Hansen. “The success she has demonstrated through her student-centered approach will help scale Strada Impact’s work across the country to improve lives through postsecondary education and work. I very much look forward to the vision, the capabilities, and the passion she will bring to delivering Strada’s mission.”
Watkins said her new role at Strada will enable her to address systemic barriers to educational access and completion and to focus on helping learners and workers progress socially and economically throughout their careers across the country. Watkins will leave her post as president at the University of Utah to join Strada in April 2021.
“Transforming lives — and doing so more holistically — this is what drew me both to Strada’s mission and to its unique network approach to driving national change,” she said. “I’m deeply honored to accept Strada’s challenge of helping to build an education-workforce system that works for many more people, from many backgrounds and occupations — especially those low-income learners and students of color who are marginalized in the current system.”
At Strada, Watkins will lead a team that works to deliver mission impact through several areas of expertise. These include: Strada’s research groups, who examine learners’ perspectives on the quality, relevance, and impact of postsecondary education and identify solutions that can help them overcome the barriers they face; strategic philanthropy that supports collaborative and innovative solutions that advance credential completion with a purpose and informs future endeavors; and policy and thought leadership efforts that amplify solutions and practical insights that mobilize action.
As Utah’s president since 2018, and senior vice president for academic affairs prior to that time, Watkins’ innovative partnerships with alumni, state policymakers, and industry and community stakeholders have led to a significant increase in the public research institution’s graduation rates and stronger career pathways for graduates — during her tenure, Utah’s six-year graduation rate increased significantly. Watkins quickly gained a reputation for uniting the campus to address grand societal challenges, including improving mental health services and decreasing interpersonal violence. Over the past three years, sponsored research funding grants increased from $515 million (fiscal year 2018) to $603 million (fiscal year 2020).
Under her leadership, the university also supported social change and community workforce needs by establishing innovative student funding models and building strong partnerships with community stakeholders. In the fall of 2020, Utah welcomed its most diverse first-year class in history, now at 31 percent — up 8 percentage points over the past decade. In addition to addressing equitable access, during Watkins’ tenure, equity gaps in graduation rates have narrowed significantly. In 2019, the university was invited to join the Association of American Universities, recognition that it has become one of the 65 leading research universities in the nation.
Watkins arrived on campus in 2013 as senior vice president for academic affairs before becoming the first woman named as president in 2018. Prior to her career in Utah, she spent 20 years in leadership and faculty roles at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and earlier worked at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has significant experience with securing external research grant funding; her work as a principal investigator or co-investigator drew funding support from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, Lumina Foundation, and other federal and national entities. She was named a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in 2003.
Watkins graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in child language at the University of Kansas.
Strada Education Network is a new kind of social impact organization dedicated to improving lives by forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment. Our approach combines innovative research, thought leadership, strategic philanthropy, mission-aligned investments, and a network of affiliate organizations. Together, we work to better serve millions of individuals in the United States seeking to complete postsecondary education and training, gain clear value from those experiences, and build meaningful careers. Learn more at stradaeducation.org.
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