On academics, athletics, and weathering the financial storm: Herbst has high hopes for UConn

Susan Herbst, the first woman to be named president of the University of Connecticut, will take office later this year as the state and the university confront the most serious financial crisis in decades. In a wide-ranging telephone interview with The Mirror, Herbst talked about that challenge, as well as her views on high-profile athletic programs, underage drinking, and UConn’s standing as a research institution. From her office in Atlanta, where she is executive vice chancellor and academic officer for the University System of Georgia, she also spoke about her family, her love of teaching, and the adjustment to the New England winter.

What’s your first order of business?

First order of business is to come to know the faculty, staff, students, administrators, all our stakeholders, alumni, the trustees. I’ve been doing my best to try to meet people over the phone and e-mail and when I’m up on my visits. I think it’s really important . . . to get a sense of what the challenges are, what’s terrific about UConn…and trying to bring what I know about national higher education, having been at a few different institutions, to Connecticut…The University of Connecticut is a big flagship in an important state, and it does face a lot of the same challenges that the flagships face across the country, so one of the things I’m trying to do here in getting to know UConn … is to put UConn up against a lot of the other big publics and privates to try to figure out where we stand.

You’ve said the state’s investment in construction projects at UConn is the “envy of the nation.” In light of the state’s impending financial crisis, will the university be able to fill those new buildings with an adequate number of faculty?

Absolutely. In public higher education and private higher education, we are, as we always have been, playing the long game. There are ups and downs in the economy. State budgets are crunched. We will have our ups and downs but we will keep our eyes focused on progress over the long term. … What are your long-term goals, and what do you want to build in the end with regard to this university in Connecticut?…You know, the university is forever, and we need to focus on not losing the excellence we have, even in the down times….These are storms to be weathered.

If shedding faculty is not an option, are there more opportunities to cut costs at UConn?

There very likely are. For me, it’s a little bit early for that because I haven’t been deep into the budget yet in a way I will be when I get on board. But I think it’s a necessity. We will have to work with the budget we have and at the same time protect the core of the academic mission. … We have cut our budgets dramatically in Georgia over the last couple of years. We’ve had very constrained budgets, and we have 35 colleges and universities in our system. I believe I’ve seen nearly every manner of cuts in protection for our university….I believe my broad experience with all of these institutions has given me a sense of what you look for and how you can cut and still protect the academic mission.

At the University of Connecticut, tuition over the last decade has gone up each year anywhere between 5.5 percent and as high as almost 11 percent. How do you guard against raising tuition so much that it makes the university less accessible?

These are critical issues for the University of Connecticut and across the nation. The goal is to try to balance what you need to fund the university and the welfare of the students, their ability to get access to higher education. … The budget options for [fiscal year] ’12 – whether or not tuition goes up – are going to be tied to state appropriations. In Georgia, or in all states across the country, everybody’s suffering, and I think that everything is on the table when it comes to the options for the coming year.

What’s the best way to guarantee an economically diverse student body? Young people who come out of Hartford or Bridgeport whose families are relatively poor – how do you guarantee that they have access to a university like UConn?

It’s something I’ve worked on at all the universities I’ve been at as an administrator. It’s scholarships, and we have to work with our donors and potential donors. We have to work on philanthropy much harder than public higher education ever has before and to try to make it possible for these students to afford college. You can only work so much while you’re going to school and be successful. We do want our students to graduate in a timely way. There’s no question that public higher education has been behind with regard to philanthropy. Now that the economic situation is dire, it’s more important than ever to build up that infrastructure….Fewer and fewer students are graduating on time, and a big part of that is affordability. It’s been very frustrating to watch. When I’m president…there’ll be a tremendous focus on philanthropy and scholarships.

How do you go about doing that?

Most donors I’ve worked with who are interested in student success are very much focused on how getting more students from all walks of life to college, how that will actually improve America. This is a time in the United States when there’s a lot of confusion about where the nation is going and how the next generation is going to lead us forward….When you  work with potential donors, they’re all stakeholders on why it’s important to get more students into college and through college. You try to focus on the future of the country itself. We’re behind so many other countries in areas like science and math education, but also in the liberal arts training. It’s as important. If we can’t produce as many citizens as possible through college who are able to figure  out what kind of policies are best for America and Connecticut, then we’re not succeeding in public higher education….I’ve found that to be one of the best conversations I’ve had with stakeholders and donors, and it’s something I feel very strongly about.

In the most recent National Science Foundation rankings, UConn – among major research universities – ranked 85th in terms of securing federal grants. Where should the university set its goal as a research institution? How do you believe UConn looks so far?

UConn actually looks very good considering it is competing against the private [institutions] in competing for these federal dollars. We’re not as heavily invested in some of the classic areas as some of these institutions have been, so considering the size of the faculty, the kind of resources UConn has been working with, we’re doing incredibly well. That said, we need to move up. The federal dollars from places like the NSF or the [National Institutes of Health] are critical to the growth of the university. To move up in those rankings is something every university wants to do. Very few universities are happy with where they’re at. It’s not only to try to bring as many faculty as you can to UConn but also to support the faculty you have and make sure they have what they need to do their work.

What are some of the areas that are the strengths of the university?

It’s too hard to list. There are some whole schools that stand out, such as the School of Education. There are many strong departments across the social sciences, sciences, business, professional schools, the humanities. One of the things I’m so impressed with at UConn is protection of the humanities. We can talk so much about the technical fields, the medical fields and how much they contribute….how much money they bring with regard to federal grants, how much invention there is, how many companies are started….but lost in all this many times are the successes they have in departments like art history or foreign languages or the social sciences. These are the fields [that] enable young people to become terrific contributors and leaders. Unless you have that context of the liberal arts to tell you what is meaningful to pursue, you don’t have all you need.

More than one-third of freshmen at UConn’s Storrs campus are from out of state. Should that number continue to increase?

I don’t know. I haven’t been on the ground long enough….It’s not just important to the university what the balance is, but also to our stakeholders – the legislature, the governor, citizens….That said, having that many out of state students as we currently do is tremendous. UConn is an international university. You need a lot of Connecticut residents and a lot of people from outside. That mix is what makes any public institution, any private institution, great….Where [students] go to college very much determines where they spend their lives, and it’s good to bring more talented people to Connecticut.

How does the current fiscal crisis compare to the financial struggles of higher education in previous years in your experience?

It’s been in many ways a very good time for higher education to hold a mirror up to itself. What do we do well? What don’t we do well, and how do we need to change? Comparatively, the budget situation at UConn – we are in such better shape than so many other flagships and institutions across the country…and one of the main reasons is that Connecticut has really valued higher education. Obviously, the capital investment over the past decade is stunning. It’s something that long before I ever thought I could be fortunate enough to be at Connecticut, this is something everybody around the country noticed….We have all these facilities now and all this investment and we’ve done it before this economic downturn, so we start off better…than so many other places.

There’s a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the university in connection with spring weekend. What’s the role of the university in monitoring student events like spring weekend?

Even though I haven’t been on campus and we’re waiting on a report on spring weekend, I have a lot to say on it because it’s one of the things I care most about. Young people like to have fun, and we want them to enjoy being their age…They are the life force. It’s one of the reasons I went into higher education….The role of the university is to try to channel that social energy they have into meaningful activities and away from destruction and incivilities. I’ve written a lot about this and I feel really strongly about a kind of two-fold approach…First, it’s the underage drinking challenge. This is the kind of thing that keeps presidents, provosts and deans up all night. It is the source of so many of the student behavioral problems. Working on underage drinking …is something that UConn has spent a lot of time on and I will continue to spend tremendous amounts of time on. Second…is to create a campus that is constantly fun, that is full of energy, but that also is intellectually invigorating. How do we help the students to channel all that tremendous energy they have into a kind of fun that is meaningful. I have a whole slew of ideas.

UConn did not receive a $100 million federal grant it had hoped to use for expansion of the Health Center. What are the next steps?

I think Gov. Malloy said it best. It’s  a disappointment. It’s a setback. There’s no question about that, but we just can’t allow it to be an obstacle….Right now, it’s a matter of studying what’s the best way.

Your brother is president at Colgate University, and an article in Inside Higher Ed talks about the rivalry between the two of you. Has he given you any advice about being UConn’s next president?

I have to say throughout our careers, especially in the last decade, we have talked a lot about what works what doesn’t work. I think the rivalry part is overblown. … We are both very oriented around public policy, public affairs so we were both high school debaters and we debated together. My parents survived it, you know, barely.

How closely do you follow UConn sports and have you attended any games?

I follow very, very closely. We are huge sports fans in my family… There’s a funny article on the Internet about me having gone to Duke, and it was shown in the magazine that I have a Duke Barbie doll and the [UConn] students said I am not allowed to bring that with me. You know, I will take that under consideration because I am all UConn now.

What is the relationship between high-profile athletic programs, such as those at UConn, and the academic mission of the university? Where should the emphasis be?

The goal of the University is not only to enjoy that and to wallow in all of our success that has been amazing this year, but also keep out front that these are student athletes… I think it’s the president’s job to make sure that things are balanced, and that everybody understands that these are student athletes, and I emphasize student first.

There was a surprise announcement this week that UConn football coach Randy Edsall is leaving the university and a published report that he may have expressed some concern that the high admissions standards at UConn make it difficult to recruit.

I haven’t studied that yet, so I can’t comment on the admission standards in athletics. I will tell you that while we will miss the coach, he did a tremendous amount for UConn, it’s a tremendous compliment that he was sought after by another terrific university… I think because of the success we’ve had we will attract someone great.

You grew up in New York, but your have been down South in Georgia for the last several years. Last week we got a foot of snow, are you ready for the cold weather and having to shovel your driveway?

One of the hard things about moving south is there are no snow covered mountains. We love the snow… The bonus about New England is you get the snow of Chicago but you get some mountains to ski in.

You have two high-school aged children, tell us about them and where will they be going to school?

E.O. Smith [High School] is a fabulous school so we are talking with folks there how to make the transition. … As far as their interests, they are all over the map. They are both very interested in public affairs, especially my son, he loves the model [United Nations]…My daughter is really very talented in the arts. She loves to write and take pictures.

You have authored several books. Do you have any plans to write another? What should we look forward to reading about by you in the future?

One of the things I am thinking about writing, and I don’t know if I’ll have the time for a book in the near future but certainly some articles, is I am very interested in how we measure and express public opinion…. One of the things people in my field are facing up to are polling and surveying are no longer a primary means for understanding public opinion… Public opinion research is kind of in a quandary and maybe even a crisis because our old tools for measuring it seem to have gone by the wayside.

With all your other responsibilities at the University System of Georgia, you still managed to find the time to teach a class or two down there. Should the students at UConn look forward to seeing you in their classroom?

Absolutely. Teaching is still a real joy to me. It’s not just that it’s fun… It keeps leaders grounded.