A Conversation with Susan Herbst

<p>Susan Herbst. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
President-designate Susan Herbst. Photo by Peter Morenus

Susan Herbst was named UConn’s 15th president by the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees on Dec. 20, 2010. She will arrive on campus in June to lead the state’s flagship University after serving as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia. She is the first woman to be selected as the University’s president since the school’s founding in 1881. In this interview, President Herbst discusses her new role .

What about UConn drew you here?

There are many aspects of UConn that attracted me, but the primary one is the spirit of the institution. Growing up in the Northeast, I knew many people who attended UConn and held a deep, abiding love of the University. Then as a professor, over the years I watched from a distance as it became a stronger and stronger University. And there were particular parts of UConn I envied: The Roper Center, for example, is vitally important in my field of public opinion research. So, all these things taken together – the spirit of the alumni, the strong academics, and the beautiful campus – were a big draw.

<p>President designate Susan Herbst meets with deans during their monthly breakfast meeting at the Hartford Club. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
The President-designate meets with deans. Photo by Peter Morenus

You’ve been a leader in higher education for several years. What in your view makes for a successful leader in the field?

Most university presidents don’t start out seeking a leadership role. They are typically scholar-teachers, and they find over time that they like to think about the entire enterprise – the academic organization itself. I believe that to be successful you need to remember why you are in higher education, and never lose sight of students and their needs. After that, leading in academe is similar to other fields: We need teamwork, transparency, accountability – and a good sense of humor! The president may have many ideas, but may not always have the best ones, so alumni, faculty, staff, students, legislators, and our many stakeholders play a vital part in the direction of the University.

In Georgia you had a busy job, but you taught a class. Will you teach at UConn?

While it made things more hectic, teaching an undergraduate class at Georgia Tech each year has been a real joy for me. Once I get settled, I hope to teach a class at UConn as well. I became an academic because I love college students and helping them succeed. Teaching forces you to be grounded, and it enables you to keep up with youth culture. Granted, I can’t hold a great conversation about bands or the hottest websites, but teaching keeps you connected with students in a sustained way that is special. My students have gone on to amazing things, in law, medicine, the performing arts, social work, business, education, science, and the Peace Corps. They make me so incredibly proud.

<p>Susan Herbst, left, speaks with Charles "Skip" Lowe, department head of Psychology after press conference held at Rome Commons ballroom to announce the selection of Herbst as the 15th president of the University of Connecticut. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Susan Herbst speaks with "Skip" Lowe, head of the psychology department. Photo by Peter Morenus

What do you believe the University must do to remain successful and competitive going forward?

There’s no secret formula, and every great university is after the same things: supporting talented faculty, recruiting new faculty, and creating an intellectual environment that allows students to thrive. You can only stay competitive if you focus on people and their talents. I hope to enhance programs that we have and build more, since successful universities are those that value their people and support their dreams. I was very lucky, as a young professor at Northwestern, that people high in administration guided me and gave me unique opportunities to train and lead. Also vital to competitiveness is to bring the world to UConn. We have a fabulous mix of in-state and out-of-state students, and this creates a broad, diverse environment. UConn is the state’s flagship, and we must be mindful of our responsibility in representing the world and shaping it.

You’ve said that universities need to be greater engines for economic development. How can we bring this about?

There are many ways to boost UConn’s contribution to the state and region, including industry partnerships, support of faculty startup company ideas, and inspiring invention. But we need to start with the culture, creating an environment that allows people to take chances. We need to set up the infrastructure for people to take chances, partner with industry, and build teams across disciplines. The administration needs to be committed to it. At Georgia Tech these last few years, I have learned so much about building companies within the academic mission. It can be done, and it is a high priority for UConn.

<p>President designate Susan Herbst ,top center, meets with senior administrators at the UConn Health Center. Seated clockwise from Herbst are Carolle Andrews, chief academic officer, Marja Hurley, professor of Medicine, Marc Lalande, professor and chair Genetics and Developmental Biology.  William Kleinman, assistant attorney general, Cato Laurencin, vice president for Health Affairs,  and Provost Peter Nicholls. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Susan Herbst meets with senior administrators at the UConn Health Center. Photo by Peter Morenus

Academic medical centers such as the UConn Health Center are complex enterprises that need tremendous attention. What do you see as the role of the Health Center?

Academic medical centers need our full attention. They are vital to the future of education, and we need more physicians, nurses, dentists, and health professionals. In addition to serving the region, I hope UConn can play a pivotal role in the future of American health care, since so much is at stake for our children and grandchildren. I have worked at two great universities with thriving biomedical research and clinical departments. Undergraduates are inspired toward the health professions when there is a medical school, hospital, and basic life science. They often work in labs, for example, or meet faculty and graduate students who lure them toward careers in health care. And, of course, a health center thrives when it is connected to the scientific research and intellectual fervor of the rest of the campus.

Even before the recession, state funding for public universities was growing at a slower rate or shrinking in many states while costs continue to increase. How can universities adapt to this?

We must be more efficient, but without damaging what makes a university great. I see worrisome signs around the country, where universities are eliminating the very parts of liberal arts education that I hold most dear. Students need to learn skills, but also how to think, ask the big questions, and figure out why life is worth living. That’s the job of philosophers, artists, historians, sociologists, and so many professors who enrich our campus.

We must all accelerate our efforts in philanthropy. I will work hard with our alumni, donors, and other stakeholders to build our endowment and achieve more protection against difficult economic trends. Public higher education is what made America what it is. We just need to develop more effective business models and make hard choices instead of avoiding them.

Both of my parents were graduates of the City University of New York, and had it not been for public higher education, they would never have built successful careers. I feel as though my brothers and I owe everything we have achieved to public higher education, and what it did to open doors for my parents.

What can UConn do to enhance its fundraising while continuing to build and maintain good relationships with alumni?

The most effective way to raise money is to treat our students well, so they become our top ambassadors. One of the best parts of my transition has been my discussions with alumni: UConn has so many people who are devoted to the University and want to help. We need to call on them for their ideas, effort, and voices, in addition to the many excellent professionals in our Foundation offices.

A last word about alumni: I became the acting president back at SUNY Albany after our president’s tragic death, and it was an awful time for our entire community. Many people pitched in to help, but I leaned hardest on our alumni. They were the people who loved the university most dearly and were most determined to help. It’s fair to say that the alumni were my bedrock, and I saw there that while presidents and provosts come and go, the alumni are truly a university’s greatest and most enduring asset.

Susan Herbst and Board of Trustees chairman Larry McHugh hold up a UConn jersey, watched by Gov. Dannel Malloy and former Gov. Jodi Rell.

How important are athletics to universities like UConn?

They are very important and inspiring. Student-athletes work so hard for themselves, their coaches, and the community. They are tremendous symbols of excellence and performance under pressure. We need to keep athletics strong and central to our vision, while using them as a platform to teach people beyond UConn about the University. Athletics are exciting and draw attention to us. When we have that attention, we must grab it and tell people about our academics, our campus setting, and all we do for this region.

You intend to hold regular office hours when anyone in the UConn community can feel free to drop by and talk with you. What led you to want to do this?

My father worked for IBM back in the early days of semiconductor manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s. At one point he had a very aggravating management problem that he just could not get resolved. So one day he put on his best suit and said he was going to see the CEO, Thomas J. Watson Jr. Watson had established an “open-door policy” where anyone – no matter their station – within IBM could come see him with challenges, complaints, and ideas. I thought that was the most amazing thing in the world. And it worked!

When I was in college I loved seeing my favorite professors during office hours. Students think they are bothering us and they aren’t: Faculty are often sitting there during office hours with no visitors. I hope to enhance the culture of accessibility and conversation at UConn, and office hours are one way to do this.

<p>President designate Susan Herbst speak to the media after a meeting at the Governor's office. At right is Governor Dannel P. Malloy. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Susan Herbst speaks with the media after a meeting at the Governor's office, as Gov. Malloy looks on. Photo by Peter Morenus

You’re the author of a book on civility or the lack of it in American politics. Is there a remedy for the incivility we so often see in our political discourse? Does it require one?

There has always been incivility in American politics: Our founding fathers were not angels, and being rude has long been part of the rough-and-tumble democracy they built. I primarily study public opinion and political culture, but I wrote the book to try and influence K-12 and higher education. I outline how we can teach students, as early as middle school, to argue with passion and civility at the same time. And, as we teach argument, we need to become better listeners, who know how to tolerate diverse opinions and people. Put another way: We cannot simply teach students how government works or what is in the Constitution. We must teach them how to participate in a living, imperfect democracy, and find the solutions to so many pressing problems in this world as they do.

This interview was published in the Spring 2011 edition of UCONN Magazine.