New UConn president gets grilled on donor relations

Susan Herbst’s extensive background in political civility came in handy Wednesday as she fielded questions at the State Capitol about whether she would return a $3 million gift to an angry donor: She expressed gratitude to donor Robert Burton, support for Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway, and a desire for clear communication.

“Philanthropy absolutely needs to be stepped up. I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Burton and donors like him that have seen it in themselves to give great gifts to the University,” the recently-named University of Connecticut president who will assume office in July said after a 30-minute meeting with Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Pressed whether UConn would give in to the Greenwich businessman’s demands that the school return his donation and take his name off the football team’s training complex, Herbst attempted to defuse the situation by saying there was a clear communication breakdown.

But she also came to the defense of UConn’s Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway, who was lambasted by Burton in a Jan. 19 letter.

“We are all accountable to this state,”she said. “Nobody in higher education that I know of, public or private, is bulletproof. All that said he has done an excellent job.” she said.

“Communication is very, very important,” she added.

Malloy agreed.

“Somewhere our communications broke down and I think what we can expect from our donors as well as the university is that we don’t allow communications to break down like that in the future,” he said, noting he spent no more than 90 seconds of his 30-minute meeting with Herbst to talk about the role of major donors play in decision making.

Malloy, as well as UConn board chairman Lawrence McHugh, called Burton last week in an attempt to mend the relationship with the university sports program’s largest donor.