UCR’s new provost loves to plan,
but her road to Riverside was unpredictable.
By John Warren
here is a joke in Elizabeth Watkins’ family that, if she had a vanity license plate, it would read “LUV2PLN.” Consider this recent episode relayed by Watkins’ two daughters. Watkins — who became UC Riverside’s provost and executive vice chancellor in May — wanted to surprise her older daughter, Emily, with a visit from younger daughter Ellen, who lives in New York City. Mom, who goes by Liz, was worried that Emily — with her in Southern California for a visit — might see the text messages on her phone after Ellen landed at LAX. So Liz devised code phrases for Ellen.
To let her mom know the plane had landed, Ellen would type: “Hi, mom. How are you?”
Liz would respond with: “Great. Teddy (her grandson) is here.”
When Ellen arrived at the rental car counter: “How long is he staying?”
Liz: “Until Sunday.”
When Ellen was five minutes away: “Great. How fun.”
Watkins, center, with her daughters Emily, left, and Ellen in 2014.
“I was hanging out in the backyard with my baby boy, and Ellen walked out with my mom. I shrieked,” said Emily, 33, a medical doctor in Portland, Oregon. “I was so shocked. It was delightful.”
“She loves to plan, and she has a great way of thinking about how to make things better,” Emily said. And “she’s very good at turning everyday things into games,” added Ellen, 29, a high school science teacher.
A penchant for planning, along with consensus building, has been key to Watkins’ professional success. But if there’s a conventional way to become the top academic officer on a college campus, it’s not Watkins’ story. Born Elizabeth Siegel, she grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island. Her parents were both native New Yorkers. Her father, Eddie, was in the family textile business. Her mother, Judy, taught public school, then became a school psychologist, then a real estate developer.
“Classic 1960s suburbs; all the houses looked alike,” Watkins recalled. “Tennis in the summer, skiing in the winter.”
She played on Toll Gate High School’s 1979 championship tennis team in the No. 1 singles spot.
“She had a perfected and repetitive style,” said her lifelong friend and tennis teammate Leslie Hoyt. “She didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Hoyt remembers Watkins leading impromptu cheers on the team bus. “P-S-Y-C-H-E-D … Psyched! Let’s geeeeet psyched!”
Watkins earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard University in 1984; she would later earn her doctorate in the history of science, also from Harvard.
“She juggled so many different things from a career and mom standpoint, and she made it look realistic,” Emily said. Ellen added: “As a kid, things were very easy for us.”
A job as senior historian at a museum in Pittsburgh led to adjunct teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. Her story became one familiar to humanities scholars. Year after year, she worked as an adjunct, teaching two or three classes in American history and history of science each semester, her prospects for a full-time, tenured professorship seemingly growing dimmer. Then, finally, a full-time position came up at Carnegie Mellon in 2003.
“I wasn’t even interviewed,” Watkins said.
“She is super goal-oriented and ambitious,” Ellen said. “As a kid, you want your parents to be happy, and she wasn’t happy.”
Watkins with her husband, John Janetos, in 2017.