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Why leadership matters at the U

Mary Ann Villarreal speaks to a U of U graduate

Why leadership matters at the U

An appreciation of Dr. Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion


The first time we met, Dr. Mary Ann Villarreal immediately won me over with her disarming manner.

“It looks like I found a new physician for my grandmother,” she said and smiled. In her interview, she proved she was a brilliant strategist, dissecting the intricacies of the policy culture in higher ed and the state’s political landscape. But her charisma and approachability instantly drew me to her when we first met. Plus, I was honored to care for her grandmother, and the world has been a poorer place since she passed away.

Mary Ann Villareal smiles in a brightly lit building
Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal

Mary Ann joined our institution in 2019, at a time of great optimism, and she immediately proved herself an exceptional leader, someone anyone would want to work with. Her vision of joining the two branches, University of Utah Health and the main campus into one U, has reshaped the entire institution. She has revitalized a sense of collaboration, and though we’d always worked closely with the equity and diversity leaders on the main campus, the idea of being part of the same unit had never been explored before Mary Ann’s arrival. Her vision of One U Thriving set the course for what has become a great example of what can be accomplished together.

Dr. Villarreal brings that vision into reality—and incorporating the work of the University of Utah Health’s Health Equity and Inclusion office into the Division for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (EDI) brought my office directly into Dr. Villarreal’s orbit. Her advocacy and leadership also prompted the end of my time as interim associate vice president, along with the name change of our office to University of Utah Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (UHEDI). This name change was just the beginning of the alignment between UHEDI and EDI.

As the VP for EDI, Villarreal brings structure and science to the division, evaluating all EDI programs and creating accountability across the division while highlighting the good work being done. The added infrastructure of the EDI division allows the UHEDI office to focus on program evaluation and research. In addition, her leadership ensures that EDI work continues unfettered in health sciences. Today, multiple people are working on EDI, many of whom do not have titles in this space but who still play essential roles. Her vision of ensuring that the work of EDI is everyone’s work has been invaluable.

Mary Ann Villarreal speaks at a podium
VP Villarreal speaks a the MLK 40th Anniversary Gala during MLK Week 2024 at the University of Utah.

To date, there are six manuscripts highlighting the extraordinary programs in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion, on both health sciences and main campus.1-7 Dr. Villarreal is also involved in stimulating national conversations around the terminology common to diversity work.8 And she brings many other great attributes to our university—like the New Leadership Academy, an equity-centered leadership program, that trains university presidents and continues to draw scholars from across the United States to the U. Mary Ann brought the NLA to Utah from the University of Michigan, and her team is implementing Shared Equity Leadership in all its work to ensure we’re working consistently to increase opportunity, equity, and belonging for all our students.

Working with VP Villarreal also allows us to create more science. Her pioneering work with the Center for Equity and Student Belonging (CESB), the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC), and the Black Cultural Center (BCC) have established their role as centers for belonging, which improves academic outcomes for students.9 And she has helped to bring in millions of dollars in support for the entire campus—from large private foundations and federal entities—benefiting all our students, staff, and faculty.

VP Villarreal is brilliant in her role, supporting students, faculty, and staff to express themselves freely while continuing to support the university’s mission as a top-tier public institution with “unsurpassed societal impact.” More than anyone else I know, Mary Ann embodies these principles with grace and aplomb, expanding support for the entire campus—even when she has to do so against political headwinds and skullduggery.

We are lucky to have such a talented leader at our institution. Her presence and leadership make us better. I personally have learned much from Mary Ann in her short tenure here. So, when you see her, thank her. Her work proves that EDI serves all identities at the U and helps create a campus community where everyone knows they belong.


  1. Ryujin D, Spackman J, Honda TJ, et al. Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program. Fam Med. May 2021;53(5):372-375. doi:10.22454/FamMed.2021.923340
  2. Bliss C, Wood N, Martineau M, Browning-Hawes K, Lopez A, Rodriguez J. Exceeding Expectations: Students Underrepresented in Medicine at University of Utah Health. Family Medicine. 2020;52(8):5. doi:10.22454/FamMed.2020.137698
  3. Rodríguez JE, Bliss C, Hawes KB, et al. Introspection to Improve Pipelines and Graduate Programs at University of Utah Health. Fam Med. 09 2021;53(8):730. doi:10.22454/FamMed.2021.377645
  4. Holsti M, Clark E, Fisher S, et al. Lessons From the First Decade of the Native American Summer Research Internship at the University of Utah. Acad Med. Sep 2020;doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000003759
  5. Stoesser K, Frame KA, Sanyer O, et al. Increasing URiM Family Medicine Residents at University of Utah Health. PRiMER. 2021;5:42. doi:10.22454/PRiMER.2021.279738
  6. López AM, Rodríguez JE, Browning Hawes K, et al. Preparing historically underrepresented trainees for biomedical cancer research careers at Huntsman Cancer Institute/University of Utah Health. Med Educ Online. Dec 2021;26(1):1929045. doi:10.1080/10872981.2021.1929045
  7. Cariello PF, Figueroa E, Harri  s CM, et al. Future Doctors from Underrepresented in Medicine Communities at the University of Utah. PRiMER: Peer-reviewed Reports in Medical Education Research  2023;7(25):7.
  8. Rodríguez JE, Figueroa E, Campbell KM, et al. Towards a common lexicon for equity, diversity, and inclusion work in academic medicine. BMC Medical Education. 2022/10/04 2022;22(1):703. doi:10.1186/s12909-022-03736-6
  9. Strayhorn TL. College students' sense of belonging : a key to educational success for all students. Second ed.

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José E. Rodríguez, M.D., FAAFP

Feb 08, 2024 10:01 AM