UConn President Katsouleas on research growth, free speech, and faculty
Newly arrived UConn President Thomas C. Katsouleas is lining up his priorities, from doubling the university’s funds for research to expanding high-demand programs through targeted corporation donations.
A plasma scientist and inventor, Katsouleas, 61, served as provost at the University of Virginia for four years before coming to Connecticut. Before then, he was the dean of the engineering school at Duke University and a professor at the University of Southern California.
He started at UConn on August 1.
The CT Mirror interviewed Katsouleas in his new office on the Storrs campus, where some of his personal treasures are in evidence.
A personalized skateboard — a gift from his former plasma accelerator group at USC — is propped in a corner near the door. An electron particle surfing a yellow wave graces one side of the board, while circles reflecting data are on the other.
“This is data from our most significant result,” Katsouleas said. “That was very thoughtful of them.”
Katsouleas, who was known as the “skateboarding dean” at USC, has already been spotted cruising around UConn on his board.
On the wall is a striking photograph of a rosy sunset over the Mediterranean taken from his father’s home on the coast of Greece. Katsouleas’s father was an immigrant to the U.S. from Greece and Katsouleas returns to the country every summer.
“That view at sunset probably hasn’t changed in several thousand years,” said Katsouleas of the photo. “But for a few houses, you can imagine that Achilles and Agamemnon had the same view.”
Question: So why would you, a successful scientist and inventor, want to become a university president?
Answer: Well, you know, I started as a faculty member — in fact, as a researcher. But as a researcher I was teaching and enjoyed that. From there, I was recruited to USC to to be a tenured faculty member. My aspirations really were to have a very successful research group, to teach my students and really advance the field of plasma science and so I was happily doing that. But when I arrived at USC, the dean tapped me and said, ‘We’re having a little trouble with our physics sequence. About half of our students are getting D’s F’s and W’s — withdraws. Can you help take a look at that?’
I got involved working with the physics faculty and we worked together and made some improvements that seemed to help students and I developed an appreciation for sort of working in administration and having a bigger impact than just on my own students. And, from there, it grew.
Q: There’s a lot of discussion about the relevance of higher education and whether it is necessary to get a four-year degree. How will you keep higher education relevant for high school students and their families?
A: No question it’s changing, and also that the perception doesn’t necessarily match the reality. If you look at Pew Survey results, families across America, students and parents increasingly are questioning whether there’s value in higher education. And yet the data clearly shows a strong correlation between more education and higher employment rates and higher salaries so that’s all in the data but, increasingly, it’s not in the narrative.
And there are a couple of expectations that are emerging. One is that for the first time, parents and students think the most important reason for a college education is to get a job, which seems obvious. But historically that hasn’t been the number one answer. It’s been to get a good education and the intrinsic value of that. So that’s one shift. And, increasingly, they’re questioning whether or not colleges and universities are delivering on that.
Q: What can you do about that?
A: The challenge for us is to change both the perception and the reality. And we’re working on that here at UConn in a couple of ways. We are reshaping and refining our message. We have several ideas on how we convey the message that UConn is for them, if they’re first generation students, if they feel like they’ve been marginalized or left behind by this economy. We give a lot of financial aid and many students from first generation families, in particular, don’t bother to apply for it because they they think it’s beyond them. So we need to strengthen our message about how strong our commitment is to financial aid. That’s one.
And then the second thing we’re doing is on the reality side. For a decade, higher education has focused on completion rates and that was important. But the next frontier is about giving students the kind of educational experience that leads to later well-being and work engagement. And of course that fits very well with who we think we are, both from a faculty point of view and from our state legislators’ point of view, as a land grant university. You know faculty believe we’re in the business of human development and the legislature understands that we’re in the business of workforce development and fortunately the recent research shows those two are not in contradiction at all, in fact they’re synergistic. The same types of experiences correlate with both.
Q: What do you think about the focus lately on encouraging students to earn certificates — to get usable skills — rather than undertaking a four-year degree in, for instance, the humanities?
A: There’s certainly value to certificates and that kind of training, but it leaves off something that we’re trying to do with a liberal arts education. We’re trying to instill in students identity, agency and purpose and with a certificate you’re trying to instill in students a particular skill. You know for most students, over the course of their careers, their ultimate job doesn’t yet exist. So this is the danger of doing skill-based training — not to mention that the kind of well-being that we talked about previously doesn’t come from that kind of learning experience. It may lead to a near-term job but it doesn’t lead to broader goals in life.
Q: Is there a plan to keep increasing the numbers of students at UConn or is the university at its max for at least awhile?
A: We don’t have a growth plan approved by our board at this point. That is a board level decision and something we’ll be engaging with them and talking about. I think we would like to grow in certain areas. I just visited the nursing school and met some wonderful students who were just come back from summer internships. They were telling me how well prepared they were by our nursing school compared to interns who are coming from other schools. Every single one of them has multiple job offers. There are many areas like that where there’s unmet demand and we’d like to meet that.
The state is in a difficult position to expand the block grants so it’s difficult for us to expand our student base without additional support from the state. And so we’re working now with some very valuable corporate partners in certain areas where they have interest in growing the workforce in areas relevant to their businesses and we’re hoping that that might become a novel path for bridging that gap in the new world.
Q: So if a corporation needed more nurses or engineers, it could contribute money to expand the program?
A: Exactly. I don’t know that anyone has done quite what we’re trying to do.
Q: The state’s unfunded liability has pumped up the cost of fringe benefits and you’ve said it is impeding the growth of research at UConn. Any thoughts on how to resolve the issue as you try to double the research?
A: So this is something we would want to partner with the governor and with the legislature and see how we could work together toward that. In the meantime, there are certain priorities if we’re going to double research. First thing we have to do is not lose our top faculty. In order to do that, I’m convinced that the number one priority is to ensure that they have a level playing field to pursue research with their peer competitors across the country, and right now they don’t because the fringe rate on their grant proposals far exceeds any other university in the country.
It ranges from 30% to 100% [of an employee’s salary], depending on the category of employee, whereas for our peers, most are in the 20 to 30 [percent] range.
So what that means is that a grant for one of our faculty will either cost more to do the same thing and so not be reviewed as positively by the peer reviewers who say, well, that’s too expensive, or because they have to spend so much of it on fringe, they may only be able to [hire] two post docs instead of three and get proportionately less work done. Then, of course, the danger there is that [faculty] will choose to go to another university where they can be more successful at pursuing what they are passionate about.
Q: Have you lost faculty ?
A: Well it’s been a risk and we have lost faculty. We don’t know exactly if the faculty loss is attributed just to this, but yes.
Q: So we hear that UConn may invest $25 million in an effort to promote its research effort and help to double research dollars over the next seven to 10 years?
A: You don’t get there by just asking faculty to work twice as hard. You get there by investing in research and, based on experience, we know the kind of investment it takes is typically a dollar of investment one time to produce an increase in external research funding by a dollar per year. And that’s a very oversimplified estimate, in fact very optimistic, but at a minimum you need to make that kind of investment and you do need to do it wisely in the kind of portfolio of investment that maximizes the productivity of your existing faculty and maximizes the additional research you get from new faculty hires.
Q: Do you envision increasing faculty?
A: We have some statistics on it. In the last few years we’ve dropped from a high of 4.9 tenure track faculty per hundred students to 4.1. That doesn’t sound that alarming, but that’s 20%.
That’s been the result of, in the last few years, financial exigency. And so we have to reverse that trend and that means even though it’s more expensive we need to be putting an emphasis on hiring research faculty over hiring more faculty who just teach and don’t do research.
Q: What do you think about having someone come to campus to speak who is a racist?
A: You know, it’s a case by case basis. So, yes, if somebody came to speak who was clearly here to spread racist rhetoric, I would hope our students would not want to invite them. But if they did, you know, we support free speech. Free speech does not preclude hate speech. We would be bound by the Constitution as well as our principles as an open forum for all voices, to support the students who invited that speaker. But, hopefully students would prefer to choose a speaker who was more thoughtful and oftentimes these [situations] are avoided by having conversations with students.
Q: How big is the foreign student population at UConn this year?
A: This year is the most international student body we’ve ever had at UConn… So, it’s over 500 [new foreign undergraduates this year.]
We’re pretty proud that we have such an international student body. We took stock of it for the first time and I think that we are among the top 20 most international student bodies in the country … and we think that’s a good thing … for the enhanced perspective that our students get from interacting with students from different countries.
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