Oct 12, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Last month, Ruth Watkins was inaugurated as the 16th president of one of Utah’s largest public universities. Not only was this significant because she was the first woman president in the school’s history, but also because it signified a major moment in higher education history: Watkins joined an esteemed group of women who now make up the leadership of half of the state’s public schools, as recently reported by Deseret News.

A Milestone Achievement

The inauguration of Watkins brought the total number of women presidents at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities to four. Alongside Watkins, two others are also the first women to assume these pivotal positions at their institutions.

Ahead of the Curve

How does this stack up against the national average? According to a 2017 American College President Study, women accounted for just 30 percent of all college and university leaders in 2016.

Utah Women and Leadership Project executive director Susan Madsen points to the profound impact of this "sea change in leadership" -- particularly as it pertains to students and other young women. "You can’t be what you can’t see. If you see that someone’s there in that leadership role, especially in that top (position), our students will think a bit differently about that," she said

A Breadth and Depth of Benefits

But there are other benefits, too. A 2009 White House project report on women leaders in education explains, "So much more is at stake than the mere numbers of women who have reached the top. The presence — or absence — of female academic leaders can have far-reaching influences not only on the institutions themselves, but beyond that, on the scope of research and knowledge that affects us all.”

The report adds, “Studies have shown that when prominent female academics are involved in research, for example, it can affect the nature of both the questions that are asked and the findings. Women in senior faculty positions and top-level leadership positions in academia provide male students, faculty and staff an important opportunity to work with talented women — an experience that will prove increasingly valuable."

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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