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New USU president Cantwell shares her vision of Utah State's future

Betsy Cantwell stands behind a wooden lectern with a dark blue background.
Levi Sim
Utah State University
Elizabeth R. Cantwell gives a brief speech on May 19, 2023 at Utah State University. Cantwell is now the 17th president of USU.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell began her tenure as Utah State president just a few weeks ago, and with students already on campus, the new USU leader described her first month at the helm in a simple way.

“An absolute rocket ride," she told Utah Public Radio and The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview. "There wasn't much time between when I was selected, and when I started. And I was willing to do that because it was really important to me to at least have a little bit of a clue by the time school started, and be here when our students started to arrive.”

The decision to throw her hat into the ring for USU president was an easy one for Cantwell, who said her background as an outdoor enthusiast made Logan a perfect place to be. But another reason is her strong belief that the future will be created in public universities.

"One is this belief that I have, that public higher education in the US is probably the most important institution we have right now for the future of our democratic republic," Cantwell said. "We are the place where every kind of civil discourse is expected to happen.”

She added that running a land-grant institution is important, because such institutions are meant to serve everyone, not just the elite.

Cantwell said she’s been taking in as many aspects of Utah State as possible. She said it’s a little like drinking out of a firehose, but added it’s important to get up to speed with all aspects of USU as quickly as possible — not just in Logan, but at the many campuses around the state.

“When you step into a position like this, as a person who hasn't already been here, you want to know how we do things, who's our internal constituency, how they operate — but also, what's our larger community like here in Logan and Cache Valley, and Salt Lake City and state of Utah," she said. "So I've been doing everything from meeting with business people, to meeting with legislators, to meeting with the State Board representatives — who are new to my board of trustees, which is very important to me. All of that, plus trying to figure out where I'm going and forcing myself to drive myself as often as possible.”

For her tenure at Utah State, Cantwell said she wants USU to be the hallmark of what a land grant university can be in the 21st century. She said the three main goals of any land grant university are teaching and learning, research and community engagement — and all three aspects are what she wants to expand.

“Our research portfolio will grow," Cantwell said. "How do we make sure that that is really a vibrant economic value for the state of Utah? I mean, it already is, but as we grow, that's going to be much more visible. And then with community engagement, what does the community need at any given time? So when we look back in 2050, we've said, 'yes, we define land grant value for any state in the way we do it,' and others look to us and go, 'this is the way we want to be.'"

That potential expansion of USU’s research portfolio is university-wide, Cantwell said. Aspects of USU like the Space Dynamics Lab will continue to grow, but expanded research in the fields of life sciences, machine learning and artificial intelligence are also areas she thinks can expand.

“We should ask ourselves, ‘what is our unique innovation ecosystem?’ And it might be bigger than Logan and Cache Valley," she said. "If we think that part of our value, our economic value, is to create ideas that become patents that become companies, some of them will be in Cache Valley, some of them will be elsewhere. So maybe we think about our research park concept as a little bit more statewide.”

Just a few days into her tenure, Cantwell was given a say in making one of the bigger decisions at USU in recent memory — who to hire as the new Aggie athletic director. Two days after she started in Logan, the Pac-12 Conference began to implode, and four days after that, she interviewed the four final candidates for athletic director.

She picked Diana Sabau, a former deputy commissioner and chief sports officer for the Big Ten Conference and, before that, the senior deputy athletics director at Ohio State University.

On conference realignment — a constant issue in today’s college athletics — Cantwell said the Mountain West Conference is strong and together, but she acknowledges that realignment can happen quickly, just like it did with the Pac-12.

“I'm saying with complete conviction that the Mountain West is strong, acknowledging that it is a real strange world out there," Cantwell said.

Another issue at universities across the country, including USU, is addressing sexual assault on campus. Cantwell said she’s seen a strong dedication to training staff, along with the university’s commitment to keep students safe. But as president, she knows the buck stops with her.

“The thing that a president can do is make it very, very clear that it's not just that we don't tolerate it is that we will do everything around the lack of tolerance to make sure that our students are safe," she said.

Now that the semester is underway, Cantwell is eager to get more familiar with USU, including talking with students and wandering the Logan campus.

“It's always an incredible gift to be able to spend time with our students, they may not think that's how we think about it, but it is," Cantwell said. "I say this a lot, but they'll stay here four years, six years or eight years, however long it is — and they will graduate and become the next generation of leaders. And we sorely need them to be effective leaders."

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.