Katsouleas Highlights Research and Education Goals in His First President’s Report

Thomas Katsouleas receives applause following his address to the Board of Trustees after his appointment to be the 16th University president during a meeting at the Wilbur Cross North Reading Room on Feb. 5, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
President Thomas Katsouleas during a meeting at the Wilbur Cross North Reading Room in February. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

President Thomas C. Katsouleas participated this week in his first UConn Board of Trustees meeting since taking on his new role Aug. 1. The following are remarks from his first President’s Report, which range from his goal to dramatically increase the research enterprise and recruit a talented new provost to joking about throwing out the first pitch at a recent New York Mets game.

My message today is three-fold. First, I want to thank you; it’s great to be here attending my first Board of Trustees meeting. I’ll share my goals from the 30,000-foot level, and also talk a bit about what I’ve been focused on in my first few weeks on the job.

It’s safe to say that baseball is not the only first pitch I’ve been working on – I hope the others will be over the plate as well.

Let me begin by saying thank you to the entire board for your warm welcome and kind words as I get started here at UConn. I also want to thank you for your insights and perspectives, which you shared with me through the search process, throughout the transition and now into my early days here. That advice and support continues to be incredibly valuable to me.

I want to extend the same appreciation to the whole university community and so many of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and elected officials, all of whom have been incredibly welcoming.

I have encountered abundant optimism, talent and dedication to the public mission of this great university – and more than that, I have encountered a palpable love for the place, which I feel as well. (My partner) Anna Maria and I already feel like Connecticut is home.

I’m glad that Chairman (Thomas) Ritter wanted to discuss goals and expectations for me today. That is exactly what I’ve been focused on as well, and I’m in complete agreement with the goals that have been set forth for me.

In keeping with that, I’m working closely with my senior team – in consultation with others – to establish a focused agenda of specific, achievable near- and long-term priorities for UConn.

I’m now fully engaged with the leadership team in the process of developing potential ideas, initiatives or changes that will support accomplishing the goals you have laid out for me. Following that process, with the guidance and support of the board, I will develop concrete plans to advance the initiatives that are the most promising and will have the most significant impact on UConn.

Doing that well takes time, strategic thought and careful planning. I will return to the board as these plans develop to ensure we are in agreement on decisions and approach; that is perhaps the most important takeaway. Now I want to give you a little flavor of the topics that I and the team are focused on at this early stage.

From the 30,000-foot level, as you know, my priorities include significantly growing research at UConn, strengthening graduate and undergraduate education, enhancing philanthropic giving, and ensuring UConn is contributing to the economic health of our state and workforce as aggressively as we can.

On Aug. 23, 6,400 new undergraduate students will descend upon campus and I and a number of the student leaders will be there to welcome them and even be putting on T-shirts and helping to move them in. The formula for student recruitment that has been so successful at UConn is simple: Offer a very high-quality education delivered by great faculty, on a vibrant campus with exceptional facilities, and at a competitive economic value for students and families.

There are many great universities in the United States and in the northeast in particular, so great students have a lot of choices. In fact, you may have seen the billboards around our state attempting to recruit Connecticut students to neighboring states. But it is UConn’s value that sets us apart for Connecticut students and gives us a leg up when it comes to recruiting the very best.

I’m actively engaged in discussions about ideas that would not only help us to maintain that value proposition, but potentially enhance and expand affordability at UConn as well.

We also need to ensure we are communicating the right way about our value to all populations. There are prospective students out there who may pass UConn by and not bother applying because of assumptions about cost. This is especially true of first-generation students.

But recruitment isn’t based on finances alone, and UConn does a terrific job of providing personal outreach to potential students.

I have a personal experience I wanted to share with you as a parent of a rising high school student, my daughter Kate. She attended the campus tour and info session on Aug. 1 – which happened to be my first day here – and affirmed that our guides offer one of the best she and I have experienced. But what really impressed Kate and me as a parent is that when she signed up and was asked about her area of interest, which is biomedical engineering, someone reached out to her to offer to arrange a further tour in that area.

No other university in the country had done that and it really wowed us. This is something the Enrollment Management team just started a year or so ago, and I think it is going to be a competitive advantage for us.

As an aside, the tour guide saw Kate’s last name and said, “Huh. That’s funny. Our president has the same last name.”

Let me turn now to financial challenges. I’m committed to working with the Governor, General Assembly, and the board to identify strategies to mitigate the financial strain on UConn and UConn Health due to the state’s unfunded pension liability.

Among my greatest concerns is the reduced competitiveness this liability creates for our faculty researchers. I am eager to identify strategies that can help address the impact of the pension liability on our faculty.

If faculty lose a competitive grant proposal to another institution because our fringe cost is so much higher and they can’t do as much research for the same amount of federal dollars, that’s very bad for the university. But if we lose a faculty member to another university because their research money goes further and they can pursue their passion better than they can here, then that’s tragic.

As you know, this problem has built up over decades and it is not something we can solve on our own.

A word about UConn Health, which is just about half of our entire budget and is home to outstanding teaching, research and patient care. As you know, we have been exploring a public-private partnership as one potential way to creating a new path forward for the institution. That continues.

As Dr. [Andrew] Agwunobi has always said, this is an exploration with an uncertain outcome. At the end of the day, we will choose the option that makes the most sense for the state, the university, and our students and patients.

While that is taking place, it is important that we remember that UConn Health – including the Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine and the clinical care enterprise – is successful, vibrant and growing.

There are two related numbers I want to highlight: In the last six years, self-generated clinical patient care revenue has risen by nearly 60 percent at UConn Health, and now accounts for half of its budget. That kind of growth in the healthcare industry is extraordinary if not unique. At the same time, minus the state’s unfunded pension and healthcare legacy costs, UConn Health would have closed the last fiscal year $20 million ahead of budget.

This success is a result of good leadership and a combination of state financial support and new state-of-art facilities, combined with strong marketing and exceptional clinicians, faculty and staff, as well as focused cost-cutting.

University-wide, my first order of business is building my senior team and moving quickly to fill key positions. First among them is provost, which is of course UConn’s chief academic officer. I am currently assembling a search committee, primarily made up of distinguished faculty, and will launch this search in the coming weeks with the goal of having a candidate selected by late 2019 or early 2020.

This position is critical to me as president, as this individual will be responsible for leading the development of the next long-term strategic academic plan for UConn.

I will also be assessing the structure of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion to ensure it is optimal to support ambition goals, and soon after will begin a search for a permanent chief diversity officer.

Another key focus which appears in the goals (the board) has set for me, and one of my top priorities, is building relationships with our stakeholders. I began doing this the day I was selected by the board for this position back in February. These relationships include our governor, the General Assembly, trustees, as well as faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and fans of UConn Athletics.

Each of these groups are vital and require constant attention and engagement consistently over time.

A word about [UConn] staff: I’m only two weeks in, but I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of staff throughout the summer. Every day I’ve been on the job, I’ve become more impressed by their talent and professionalism – from senior leadership to event planners, to those that ensure our safety and beautify and maintain our environment, the coaches and caregivers, and those who tell our story so well. They are a genuine strength and to a person have been enthusiastically committed to their important roles in support of our mission.

I share Chairman Ritter’s enthusiasm for building the UConn Ambassadors program as an important aspect of our outreach, education and advocacy efforts. UConn has many proud alumni and enthusiastic supporters. We want to harness that affinity and ensure our message is getting out, and that the quality and value of UConn is clear throughout the state of Connecticut and in state government.

A major aspect of my time as president is going to be consistently working to strengthen and highlight the direct contributions UConn makes to our state, its people and our 169 cities and towns through community service.

As you have heard me say before, good public universities support the educational and workforce needs of their state. A great public flagship university is the crown jewel of the state, uplifting the minds and spirits of not just its own students but also of surrounding communities, the entire state and beyond.

Once again, my thanks for the warm welcome and incredible thoughtfulness you have shown me. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here, getting down to work. Thank you!