SALT LAKE CITY — The first woman selected to lead the University of Utah, Ruth V. Watkins, will step down as president in April after accepting the position of president of Strada Impact.

Watkins, who was named the 16th president of the university on Jan. 18, 2018, will head Strada Education Network’s national research, philanthropy, policy and thought leadership efforts to improve students’ access to college, degree completion and career connections, according to a university press release.

Strada is a national social impact organization dedicated to strengthening the pathways between education and employment. The nonprofit organization is based in Indianapolis.

The Utah Board of Higher Education will begin a national search for a new president. It also will select an interim president, in consultation with university trustees, if Watkins’ successor is not selected before her departure.

In a letter announcing the news to the university campus community, Watkins said “together, we have achieved truly remarkable progress, building on foundations forged by previous generations at the U. I am so proud of what we have accomplished and eager to share our innovative, collaborative approaches with other institutions around the country.”

Watkins was not available for an interview Tuesday, university spokesman Christopher Nelson said.

Watkins was the first woman selected president in the University of Utah’s 168-year history, although Jerilyn S. McIntyre served as interim president twice, for two months in 1991, and all of 1997.

Prior to becoming president, Watkins was the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs, a position she assumed in 2013. She joined the U. from the University of Illinois-Champaign, where she spent 20 years in leadership and faculty roles.

In her letter to the campus, Watkins said “I believe the work of Strada Impact is more important today than ever before because completing college and securing employment will be especially crucial for millions of young Americans post-pandemic.”

Watkins’ signature initiatives, as president and senior vice president, focused on student access, success and degree completion.

“Ruth Watkins has been an exemplary leader for the University of Utah and for the entire Utah System of Higher Education during her tenure as president,” Harris H. Simmons, chairman of the Utah Board of Higher Education, said in a statement.

“Among other accomplishments, under her leadership the university’s students achieved a dramatic increase in degree completion, total research grants increased significantly and the U. was admitted to the prestigious Association of American Universities. We will greatly miss President Watkins’ authentic, intelligent and personable leadership. At the same time, we wish her great success in her new role,” Simmons said.

Other top priorities included diversity, student mental health and wellness and safety.

Many of the safety reforms on campus were implemented following the killing of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot outside her dorm in 2018 by a man she had dated. McCluskey’s parents sued the university and in November reached a $13.5 million settlement in their two lawsuits against the university.

Asked to comment on Watkins’ departure, Jill McCluskey said “we wish Watkins the best in her future endeavors. We plan to work with the new leadership at the U. to improve campus safety and hope to raise funds to build the indoor track facility for Lauren’s teammates.”

As recently as September, an on-campus student protest called for Watkins’ resignation over the university’s handling of Lauren McCluskey’s repeated pleas to campus police for help prior to her slaying and subsequent revelations that a University of Utah police officer showed explicit photos of her to colleagues and that some officers made inappropriate comments about them.

The group, called unsafe.U, also called for the abolishment of the campus police and the police budget to be reallocated toward a legal clinic for students and other services.

Christian Gardner, chairman of the University of Utah’s board of trustees, said McCluskey’s death weighed heavily on Watkins “and she was profoundly impacted and hurt by it, as we all were. She made the commitment to not ever have that happen again and under her direction she made significant investments in safety and infrastructure and personnel and policies to make the campus safer.”

Watkins hired the university’s first chief safety officer, Marlon Lynch. Following the resignation of former University Police Chief Dale Brophy, the university hired Chief Rodney Chatman, although he was placed on administrative leave in December after questions arose about whether he had achieved Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training certification. He remains on leave, a university spokesman said.

Gardner said Watkins demonstrated a “resilient” leadership style following McCluskey’s death.

“She was committed to her job and committed to making things better regardless of the obstacles in front of her, she was upbeat. She kept a great personality and I really think that came from her inner belief in people and empathy,” Gardner said.

“That was a really hard time and she just had that conviction of continuing to to move the university and move students forward.”

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Woolstenhulme said one of Watkins’ greatest accomplishments was her work that resulted in the University of Utah’s invitation to join the Association of American Universities in November 2019, placing it among the 65 leading research universities in the nation.

“She started a lot of work on that when she was the provost and then to be able to have an opportunity to get that accomplished as president was something that you can always be proud of. That is something that’s really benefited the system as a whole as well,” Woolstenhulme said.

He added that Watkins set the bar for improving the university’s college completion rate and “then other presidents around the state kind of caught on.” He credited Watkins for “making sure that when students start they get across the finish line.”

The university’s eight-year graduation rate, as of 2020, was 79%. The six-year-rate, more standardly used, was 67%, a slight dip from 70% in 2019, and may be due to Utah’s strong economy and resulting labor needs, according to spokeswoman Brooke Adams.

Woolstenhulme said when he learned of Watkins’ plans to leave the university he was saddened but also excited for her opportunities with Strada.

“That’s going to be a place where she can really help the state of Utah as well, and she’s committed to that so we’re happy for her and Bob. They’ve given the state of Utah a lot the last several years” between her three years as president and five years as senior vice president, he said.

Both donor contributions and research funding increased significantly during Watkins’ presidency. A press release noted the U. achieved a capital campaign goal of $2 billion in December 2020 — ahead of a 2023 target date — and a record $603 million in sponsored research.

Watkins drew top-tier administrators to the university to oversee health sciences; academic affairs; equity, diversity and inclusion; athletics; and safety, among others.

The campus footprint changed dramatically, with the completion of Kahlert Village, Carolyn and Kem Gardner Commons, Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House, the Robert H. and Katherine B. Garff Executive Education Building, Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, Spence Eccles Ski Team Building, David S. Layton Golf Academy, and the in-progress addition of the Ken Garff Performance Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“We really hate to lose President Watkins. She has just been stellar in so many ways not only at the University of Utah but for the system as a whole on several of the things that she’s led out on. We will greatly miss Ruth and all the great things that she has done,” Woolstenhulme said.

Amy Dunham, Strada Network’s senior vice president of marketing communications, said Strada worked with the U. on an alumni outcome survey.

“They’ve been one of the pilot members of that work on research to better understand the experiences of alumni. We’ve also overlapped with President Watkins on a couple of broader higher education and post-secondary initiatives on which both Strada and Utah are participants,” she said.

Asked if Watkins actively sought the position or was recruited, Dunham said “as a matter of course, we don’t talk about the recruitment process, but this is a division that we reached out and recruited for.”

Contributing: Paul Nelson

Correction: An earlier version of this story, attributed a slight decline in the 2020 graduation rate to the pandemic. The decline began pre-pandemic and may be due to Utah’s strong economy and resulting labor needs.