URBANA — Ruth Watkins has held just about every kind of academic post at the University of Illinois, from professor to vice provost to dean of the largest college on the Urbana campus.
So it was a natural step for her to compete for the campus' top academic office, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
"I have a very deep commitment to the University of Illinois," said Watkins, who has been on campus for 20 years. "I've built relatively good relationships with people. I start from a position of trust and respect. I have a fairly deep knowledge of the university. Right now, all of those things align well with what it takes to be successful as provost."
Watkins, one of three finalists to replace interim Provost Richard Wheeler, spoke at a public forum Tuesday attended by about 200 people.
The next forum, with finalist Ilesanmi Adesida, dean of the UI College of Engineering, is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Spurlock Museum in Urbana. The third finalist appeared on campus last week — Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and associate dean for research in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Watkins has been dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since January 2009.
On Tuesday, she outlined her experiences as dean and vice provost that prepared her for the provost's job, emphasizing that shared governance, collaboration, and "energy, optimism and enthusiasm about our goals" lead to excellence.
She cited initiatives to build online education, attract highly talented students, strengthen diversity, foster innovation and collaboration, support more transfer students, address "pressing needs" in science and technology, and retain talented young professors.
The college used a multimillion-dollar donation to create a program that supports "rising stars" in the humanities and other newly tenured faculty who were being lured away by other universities, she said.
About 60 new online courses developed by departments themselves are reaching nontraditional students and better serving on-campus students, Watkins said. One-third of new faculty job offers this year went to scholars from underrepresented backgrounds. A Faculty Input Team is developing a pilot project for interdisciplinary courses addressing critical social issues.
And a fundraising program that offers "naming" opportunities for the rooms, benches and pavers at the renovated Lincoln Hall has raised $3.5 million toward a $10 million goal for student scholarships.
Watkins was described as "optimistic" by history Professor Antoinette Burton, who asked her to identify challenges facing any provost.
Watkins said the "landscape is changing" for public research universities. The state isn't likely to be the financial partner it once was, she said, and the UI doesn't have the "head room" on tuition that it did a decade ago, as any increase puts affordability at risk. The UI will have to think about private funding, public-private partnerships, and be "mindful of access," she said.
"Our identity as a public institution is about serving talented people independent of financial background," while maintaining quality, she said.
Professor William Sullivan, former director of the UI's Environmental Council, said he was grateful for Watkins' leadership as vice provost but said her style could be interpreted as "timid." He asked her for an example of "bold and decisive" action on her part.
Watkins said bold action requires broad consultation to be effective. When she took the dean's job, the college faced a $20 million deficit that was growing by $4 million to $7 million annually. She was told that her future, and the college's, depended on her ability to turn that around.
Watkins worked with faculty and department heads to balance the budget in three years. It required some painful cuts, including reducing faculty positions, she said.
"You could not imagine a job more difficult," she said, crediting a "very thoughtful team effort" for any success.
"I didn't make the decisions; we made the decisions," she said, adding she would employ that approach as provost.
In response to a question about the campus' reputation, Watkins said the UI has continued to recruit top faculty and a record number of student applicants this year despite controversies that led to the resignation of President Michael Hogan.
Watkins began her tenure at the UI as an assistant professor in the department of speech and hearing science in 1993. In 2000, she was named associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Applied Life Studies (now Applied Health Sciences) before becoming associate provost with a focus on undergraduate education and academic affairs in 2003.
She became vice provost in 2006, guiding strategic hiring efforts and helping implement the campus strategic plan. She also led a project funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education to increase the number and success of transfer students at the UI.
Watkins previously worked at the University of Texas at Dallas. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa and doctorate from the University of Kansas.
Sullivan and others praised her presentation Tuesday.
Michael Jeffries, retired director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs, worked with Watkins on student mentoring, advising and diversity programs and said she is respected by students, faculty and administrators alike.
"She's passionate about issues, she's reflective, she's thoughtful, she asks for input," Jeffries added. "There's a great sense of trust and integrity."
More information on the provost candidates is available at http://oc.illinois.edu/oc/provost_search.html