Herbst urges UConn to raise its profile

Storrs — Mention the University of Connecticut, and many people immediately think of the university’s championship basketball teams.

UConn President Susan Herbst would like them to think of cutting-edge research labs, top-notch professors and talented students, too.

“I want to bring our academic brand up to par with our athletic brand,” Herbst said Thursday, moments after delivering an upbeat state-of-the-university address calling on the university community to raise UConn’s profile as a leading research university.

She urged faculty, students and alumni to help the university establish its own brand “to reinforce what sets UConn apart.”

In Herbst’s half-hour speech, her first state-of-the-university address since being named president a year ago, she praised the quality of UConn’s faculty and its student body and cited, in particular, the university’s growing reputation for high-quality research.

University researchers, including those at the UConn Health Center, have attracted about $200 million in research awards this year, “a significant increase from five years ago,” she said.

She singled out Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan for expanding and renovating the UConn Health Center in Farmington along with plans for opening a 300-acre technology park at UConn’s main campus in Storrs by 2015 — massive new projects undertaken even in the midst of a weak economic climate.

Along with research partnerships with Yale University in New Haven, the new research centers will help bolster the state’s economy over the long term and create a research hub much like the well-known Research Triangle of businesses and universities in North Carolina, she said.

Herbst also talked about plans to add about 300 new faculty positions by 2016, a move she said is “essential to expanding our capacity for exceptional teaching and research.”

She said the university’s growing reputation is reflected in the record number of applications, with more than 30,000 applicants vying for about 4,500 openings this year. The average score on the SAT entrance exam for last fall’s incoming freshmen was the highest ever, exceeding 1,200, she said.

All of this is happening despite a tight economy and steadily declining levels of state support — now about 28 percent of the university’s budget, down from 50 percent two decades ago. Herbst said that trend is likely to continue and urged the university to expand sources of private funding, calling for a goal of a $1 billion endowment — about three times the current level.

Despite the progress, Herbst said this “is not a time for complacency or modesty. It’s a time for action, a time to advocate on behalf of a tremendous university.”

She said UConn’s future not only depends on the strength of its students, faculty and programs — it “also relies on our ability to make the world beyond UConn aware of the fact that we have earned the right to compete on a national and international stage. The bottom line is that we need to communicate our message of excellence and ambition and do it well.”

Herbst, the first woman to hold the presidency at UConn, drew praise from a sampling of audience members attending Thursday’s speech.

“I’m very pleased because she’s made research such a priority,” said Ted Rasmussen, an associate professor of pharmaceutical science and a member of the university’s stem cell institute. “We’re totally excited about what UConn is doing with the whole bioscience program.”

Raquel Phillip, a 22-year-old senior from Torrington, was pleased that Herbst alluded to the growing diversity of the student body, including steady growth in the number of minority students over the past two decades. “I think so far she’s doing a very good job,” Phillip said.

Phillip, who grew up in Trinidad, agreed that the university’s reputation is growing. “People in Trinidad certainly know about UConn,” she said, “and it’s not only because of sports.”