Jacey Skinner Brings Curiosity, Enthusiasm, and a Lot of Gratitude to Her Role as USU’s New Board of Trustees Chair
By Andrea DeHaan
During her freshman year at Utah State University, Jacey Skinner switched her major to political science. When doing so, her father made her promise she would at least go to law school — a promise she kept. Now a member of the government affairs team at the law firm of Ballard Spahr and campaign counsel for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Skinner is the kind of alum who gets invited back to talk about her formidable career.
“I think we do a disservice always having people well established in their [field] talk to students,” she says. “We create this expectation that you’re suddenly going to leap from graduation to where you want to be. It’s important to understand that no one starts where they end up.”
Skinner (’96) came to USU wanting to be an aerospace engineer. She credits the department with great professors and great advice but quickly realized the day-to-day life of being an engineer was not what she was “best suited to do professionally.”
Skinner knew she liked policy, philosophy, and writing, so she took additional courses in interpersonal communication and developed critical skills in thinking, analysis, and public policy. She was a TA in the public speaking program but started as a research assistant for a new faculty member named John Seiter. As a distinguished full professor of communication studies, Seiter was teaching a class on persuasion for the first time, and he remembers Skinner well.
“I am super selective about the students I invite to be research assistants, and Jacey was the perfect collaborator and coauthor,” Seiter says. “Thanks to her contributions, our study won a `top paper’ award at a professional conference and was eventually published. We’re lucky to have her back at USU.”
Though she never carried an official title in student government, Skinner was an involved student and spent time helping to conduct public affairs for USU’s Best Buddies program. She says it showed her what it meant to be a leader and, also, how important it was to build connections as part of a team.
The only daughter in her Payson, Utah home, Skinner was a driven student who arrived in Logan with a lot of AP credits, and three years later, she was graduating. To be clear, she does not recommend finishing in three years — in her mind, students should use their time in college taking advantage of every opportunity. Still, Skinner said she felt well prepared, not only for law school, but to work in a world where she was able to advance policy and help people solve problems.
Fortunately, Skinner has had ample opportunities to perfect her skills.
After making good on her promise to get a law degree — from BYU in 2002 — Skinner clerked for a judge before starting work at the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office. She had her sights set on Washington, D.C., but after realizing she liked trial work, she decided to get more experience in court. As a brand-new lawyer, she was expected to make the rounds, introducing herself to people. But even in this early stage of her career, Skinner knew to leverage what she had learned in those interpersonal communication courses and what she was innately good at — making connections.
Meeting the executive director of Utah’s Statewide Association for Prosecutors for the first time, Skinner told him, “If you ever need any help, this is the kind of stuff I’m interested in.”
Thus, Skinner found her way into policy and legislative work and, as part of that role, increasingly spent time working with the state legislature and the policy side of the governor’s office. Soon, Gov. Jon Huntsman selected Skinner to direct the Utah Sentencing Commission, a statutory body that advises the courts, the governor’s office, and the legislature on criminal sentencing policy. The opportunity gave Skinner even more exposure and the chance to learn meaningful things she says she “would have never encountered otherwise.”
Originally, Skinner had no idea that being a sentencing commission director was even a job — it certainly wasn’t something she’d considered. While it wasn’t something she had anticipated, it wasn’t an opportunity she was going to turn down either.
“Put yourself in the path of something that you do find interesting, and take advantage of it,” she advises. “Then see what that opens up down the road.”
For Skinner, what opened up was the chance to serve as sentencing commission director for Gov. Huntsman and then Gov. Gary Herbert, before eventually becoming Gov. Herbert’s general counsel.
Skinner hasn’t moved to Washington D.C. like she planned, but she did do an internship there as a student. She was one of the first interns to work under, then, newly appointed Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch. It was where she realized everyone around her had law degrees, even though few were practicing lawyers. But she also asked a lot of questions and learned to open herself to new experiences.
A member of USU’s Board of Trustees since 2019, Skinner was named chair of the university’s governing board earlier this year.
“I don’t think I was even cognizant of the Board of Trustees when I was a student, but it’s an incredible opportunity to get to be a caretaker for the place that gave you so much,” she says.
More than a reason to visit the campus she loves so much, Skinner enjoys rediscovering the experiences she had through the stories of current students, and she is honored to have the chance to help shape the direction of her alma mater. R1 research status, USU’s new College of Veterinary Medicine, and the chance to work with President Elizabeth Cantwell are among the many reasons Skinner values her position on the Board.
“We have such incredible faculty, such incredible staff, such amazing students who have so much ahead of them,” Skinner says. “We have to make sure this university, and these programs, and these opportunities are not only here for students today but also here for students in the future.”
Skinner’s service to USU goes beyond the faculty, staff, and students. Being on the Board of Trustees means being back for events, games, and celebrations, which Skinner sees as a chance to bring other alumni back into the fold.
She’s still the person having conversations, learning about the experiences of others, and offering her help with the task at hand. Sometimes, getting more people involved is as easy as asking.