A Conversation with UConn Provost Carl Lejuez

UConn Provost Carl Lejuez talks about making the University an inclusive and dynamic environment, drawing on his own experiences as a faculty member and first-generation college student.

Provost Carl Lejuez sitting at a table at the Wilbur Cross South Reading Room

Provost Carl Lejuez sees the present moment as a time of challenge but also opportunity for UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

More than a third of UConn’s first-year students started the fall semester as the first generation in their family to attend college, and their potential and perseverance are being celebrated in First Gen Week events here and at other institutions nationwide.

Those new UConn Huskies are in good company: Carl Lejuez, who joined UConn in May as its provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, was a first-generation college student when he left his home in Secaucus, N.J., in 1989 to study psychology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Without much idea of what he’d need right away and unsure who to ask, Lejuez shipped almost all of his belongings – and found himself in his dorm room sleeping on a bare mattress and wearing the same shirt for four days until his boxes finally arrived.

He’s come a long way personally and professionally, but his work today is shaped in many ways by his experiences since then: first as an undergraduate navigating unfamiliar territory and, over the following years, as his career followed a trajectory from graduate student to clinical intern, research faculty member, junior faculty member, tenured professor, center director, college dean, interim provost, and now provost at UConn.

“All of those experiences really shape my perception of the importance of our role and mission as a public flagship institution,” Lejuez said recently as he approached the six-month mark at UConn. “We have a responsibility that I take very seriously to be mindful of creating a university where everyone is welcome and has the tools to be successful as undergraduates, as grad students, and as members of the faculty and staff.”

The provost is UConn’s top academic officer, directing schools and colleges and working with others in his office and elsewhere in the University to guide student learning, faculty hiring and development, and the University’s academic mission.

Lejuez hails from an entrepreneurial family whose members built their experience as butchers, factory employees, auto body workers, and other blue-collar positions into supervisors and small-business owners.

His father, a color-matcher at a paint manufacturing plant, died when he was 14. His mother, who’d started her career as a secretary in a different paint and industrial coatings company, used her innate intelligence and drive to work her way up to a management role in the company with the support of a boss who encouraged and believed in her talents.

Lejuez said watching her receive that support from others taught him the value of mentorship, and he was especially influenced by the example of his oldest sister, who worked a full-time job while completing college. That was such a point of pride for his family that the only day he recalls missing school was to attend her graduation.

Since Lejuez and his sister received their degrees, higher education has become a family tradition: His nieces Corinne Simek Collins ’03 (CLAS) and Stephanie Simek DiCicco ’09 (CLAS) are UConn alums and met their future husbands on campus, former Huskies and Green Bay Packers football player Thomas Collins ’03 (BUS) and Daniel DiCicco ’10 (CLAS), respectively.

Before he joined UConn, Lejuez was dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Kansas and served almost two years as KU’s interim provost and executive vice chancellor. He previously was professor of psychology and associate dean of research for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland.

Lejuez’s research interests include personality disorders, addictions, mental health interventions for marginalized and underserved populations, and a range of related topics. At Maryland, he founded and led the Center for Addictions, Personality and Emotions Research. Before joining Maryland, he was an assistant research professor at Brown University, and he also has served as an adjunct faculty member at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, where he also completed a sabbatical.

In fact, he’s still teaching: In addition to his provost duties, Lejuez this fall has been teaching “Tools for Emotional Wellbeing,” a one-credit class in which he draws on his academic and professional expertise to teach students stress-management skills and ways to cope with anxiety and uncertainty on top of the usual demands they face.

Lejuez is joined in Connecticut by his wife, Sara Valinejad Lejuez, who was an executive producer for many years at Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe. An intellectual force in her own right, she oversaw programs providing objective and accurate news and other original programming to Iran, where she was raised and lived until moving in 1995 to the U.S. She also recently shared some of those experiences with students as a speaker at the student-led Election Night watch party at UConn Storrs.

Lejuez sat down recently with UConn Today to discuss his first six months at UConn, settling in during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what he sees ahead.

Settling in to a new job in a new state can be daunting even under the best circumstances. How has it been to jump into the provost’s position when the pandemic has created so many complications and uncertainties?

I felt very involved and integrated into the community right away, and very welcomed. I immediately started working closely with so many people at our University who have been incredibly invested in providing a quality experience despite the pandemic. I’ve also benefitted from holding weekly (virtual) office hours and that has provided many chances to meet faculty and staff, graduate students and most recently many parents.

One thing that has always been important to me in any role is whether I’m adding value. At a time like this, while it’s reasonable to look at what all of the challenges are, I do feel from that perspective that there are a lot of opportunities to add value and to be helping the University move forward despite the difficulties of the time.

I’m not quite sure why, but from a young age, I was always very comfortable with uncertainty, and that is one of the things we’re not in short supply of right now. Perhaps that’s helped me to avoid being thrown by things, and that is a positive. On the other hand, I’ve always had to keep in mind how challenging uncertainty can be for others, so I’ve often tried in those cases to identify ways to bring some level of certainty by planning ahead and being willing to make decisions we can stick with.

What’s hard about this situation is that there are just some circumstances where we don’t have enough information, and it’s just not the right thing to make a decision yet. In those cases, we also know we need to be supportive to the community, and to understand there will be a lot of anxiety that we can anticipate and try to address. I think my background in clinical psychology helps in that regard.

I always want to be careful of sounding too positive in a time like this because I think being authentic is really important, but I do believe the approach we’ve taken at the University has been the right one. I feel we’ve done the best we can to make decisions when we’ve needed to, have some patience when we’ve needed to wait a little longer, and do the best we can in the imperative to balance our academic and intellectual mission with safety.

How does being a first-gen college student influence the way you look at your job and the University’s educational mission?

I certainly became very aware when I got to college of the ways I wasn’t fully prepared to take full advantage of all college has to offer. It was a different time then, and higher education didn’t pay as much attention to those adjustments as universities do now. But then as in now, first-gen students who may not have been prepared at the start of their college career can and do go on to accomplish amazing things with the right help and support.

In my family, college just wasn’t something we knew much about. My father was an immigrant from Aruba, and my mother grew up in a blue-collar New Jersey family where she needed to go to work to help support her family. She would have loved to have had the opportunity to go to college, but it just wasn’t an option for her.

While there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about college, there’s much about my family that helped form who I am today: There was always a really strong entrepreneurial spirit and people worked very hard, often starting as employees but then often starting or running their own businesses. So while the college part wasn’t typical, the drive to create and work hard was always part of our family and something that I learned at a very early age. It’s also something I’ve seen over and over again as a faculty member and administrator when I’ve met other students who’ve been among the first in their families to attend college.

UConn has a strong tradition of shared governance with its faculty and staff. How have you gotten to know them and their priorities, and how do you balance that collaboration with the need to make decisions that may sometimes be unpopular?

I completed my Ph.D. about 20 years ago, and 15 of those years were as a faculty member, with only the last five years being in a dean’s role or higher. My identity and sense of what’s really important at a university is still far more through the eyes of the faculty and staff. That’s why I got into this, and how I continue to think about these things.

One of the approaches I’m taking here is called collaborative governance; that is, bringing things to faculty and staff and student government leaders and seeking input before we as an administration have begun to come up with the solutions. Sometimes it may be confusing to people, because I’ll ask them what they think about an issue and some possible solutions and they might assume I’ve already made the decision, though I haven’t. Having conversations well before decisions are made is really crucial to building trust and making better decisions.

Those conversations are really important to me because you can make the decision in a way that allows you to be much more prepared to address any concerns or avoid potential mistakes and problems. If there are obvious mistakes, of course I’ll fix those, but I think people see that where I started from is rarely where I’ll end up. I’ll move quite a bit in those early conversations, but once we make a decision, I do stick with it.

Perhaps that takes a little getting used to, given that it’s a fluid approach to addressing and solving problems. It’s also very important to me to go back afterward to those who gave me thoughtful suggestions to explain the reasoning if we ended up not going with those approaches.

You can say it’s important to have these detailed discussions because it’s what faculty and staff expect in a university setting, but I would argue it’s also important to do because it can make me a better leader. It helps us reach decisions that are more likely to align with where the University is trying to go, and to provide real clarity to the rationale and communications.

I’ve also thought quite a bit about the importance of graduate students at the University and the tough spot they’re in right now. They’re both students and also instructors, and that can be a really challenging duality, particularly for our international students. We as a university took a pretty strong stand when some federal decisions have been made that were threats to graduate students, and I really appreciated the opportunity to advocate on their behalf. I feel very strongly about the need to do everything we can to support them.

You’ve been committed throughout your career to initiatives to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among students, faculty, and staff at your previous institutions. How will you support and advance those goals at UConn?

This is something that’s been important to me, and I’ve worked on quite a bit in my previous time as an administrator, and that we’re really taking as a primary focus here at UConn. You’ll see in the development of the Strategic Plan that we’re focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion as a priority in all that we do not just academically, but also operationally and in areas of scholarship.

Having and maintaining a diverse faculty and staff is really critical. Certainly we know that starts with hiring, but we also are thinking very deeply about the way in which we create and maintain an environment here at UConn where everyone feels like they can build a lifelong journey and relationship with the University.

It’s exciting that UConn as a university has brought in Frank Tuitt as our vice president and chief diversity officer, and we’ve also created space in our leadership team in Academic Affairs to have him involved in all of the things we think about and do here.

In thinking about ways in which we can focus on these issues more broadly, we’re looking both in terms of representation and also in the areas of scholarship where the University places its focus.  We have an opportunity in our hiring and in our Strategic Planning to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t just a set of platitudes, but are guiding principles.

As provost, you spend a lot of time with President Katsouleas to discuss shared goals and shape initiatives, and there appears to be a great deal of mutual respect. Do you bounce ideas off each other and find that you’re intellectually simpatico?

I take the idea seriously that the provost needs to understand, appreciate, and believe in the president’s vision for a university and to be the person who executes that for the academic enterprise. I couldn’t work for someone if I didn’t believe in their values, their morals, and their vision, and in all of those regards, I feel that the president and I are very much aligned.

President Katsouleas’ priorities fit incredibly well with the way I see where a university should be going. The exciting part for me is that I get to work with each of the schools and colleges to figure out how we make them work within their disciplines, cultures, and mindsets, and at an interdisciplinary level across all of them.

I remember being very moved in my interview when the president talked about his values and the culture he wanted to create here, and talking with him about the need for universities to communicate and be authentic and transparent. I knew from that discussion that this would be someone I’d be very happy working with and working for.

Do you have any favorite spots on campus yet? Have you settled on a favorite ice cream at the Dairy Bar?

 I’ve been able to spend a lot of time outside exploring the campus since I arrived, and I always appreciate how beautiful it is. The agricultural parts of the school aren’t far from my office (in Gulley Hall), so I’ve had a lot of opportunity to explore there and in particular to see a lot of what’s going on in CAHNR (the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources).

I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Babbidge Library and enjoy that quite a bit, but probably right now the building that feels particularly special to me is McHugh Hall. It’s a really amazing building, and being able to teach my class there and be back with students has been great.

In terms of ice cream flavors, this might sound strange, but I usually get vanilla. When something is really high quality, I tend to go simple. I’d never say that’s my favorite ice cream flavor overall, but it’s the one I like to have the most at the Dairy Bar because it’s really the perfect vanilla.