Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, January 5, 2011.

New UConn President: Recent Bad News Just Something to 'Weather'

Susan Herbst Talks About Losing $100 Million Grant; Dealing with State Budget Woes; Moving to Storrs; and Skiing

By Kathleen Megan

When Susan Herbst was named the University of Connecticut's next president on December 20, she pronounced it her "dream job."

Since then, the university has gotten some bad news: It lost out on a $100 million federal grant critical to the renovation and expansion of UConn Health Center; football Coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland; the women's basketball winning streak ended; and a lawyer for the family of a student who died after an assault on Spring Weekend announced an intent to sue the school.

Herbst, reached at her job as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia, was asked if all this news has prompted any second thoughts, as well as a number of other questions such as how she would cut the budget if asked to do so by Gov.-elect Dan Malloy and how she expects her teenaged children to adjust from the city life of Atlanta to the rural environs of Storrs.

Herbst, 48, who has written several books on politics and public opinion and has held a range of college and university positions, is expected to start her job at UConn about July 15. But she is planning a visit to the campus to meet with administrators, faculty and students in early February.

Q. So what do you think about these recent setbacks suffered by UConn? Is UConn still your "dream job"?

A. Yes, it absolutely is. You know, one of the things that people forget is, it's a big university and many things will happen. Great things happen, students learn, people discover things, faculty generate new ideas, but then problematic things happen.

You deal with these problems, and some of them are very serious as they come up, but as we say in my field of public opinion research, don't be distracted by the weather, think about climate, think about the long term.

This university is well over 100 years old and it has seen a lot of storms. I guess I'm a very optimistic person and I think that a place of learning and education and invention, if you focus on those things, all will be well and you will get past these momentary issues and these problems.

Q. On the loss of the $100 million grant: Do you plan to push on with trying to raise money for the current plan, or to consider trying a less costly approach? (The price tag on the construction project unveiled by Gov. M. Jodi Rell last year is $362 million.)

A. Well, it's under discussion. There are many things to look at. It's probably too early to report on that. I think Gov. Malloy put it best when he said it's disappointing, but we can't allow it to be an obstacle for the future of the health system and for the state.

Q. Do you expect to be involved in the search for a new football coach?

A. The current president (Interim President Philip Austin) and the athletic director, Jeff Hathaway, are keeping me in the loop and the board, but this is something that has to be done very carefully and also with some speed. I'm being apprised of it.

Q. What about Spring Weekend? What do you think UConn should do about this?

A. I can't speak to the specifics. This is obviously a case in progress. I will tell you that if there were any practical way to end the weekend outright, the university would have done it long ago. The way I see it, young people like to have fun and, of course, we want them to enjoy being their age, but the goal at the university is to challenge all that tremendous social energy toward meaningful activities and away form destruction and injury and incivility to put it baldly.

There is a task force that was formed and I think they are going to report back within the next couple of weeks. We'll obviously be very interested in what they find.

Q. You have talked about wanting to raise the status of the University of Connecticut to be in the same circles as the University of Michigan and Berkeley.

A. How do we get there? We compete against the big public flagships but we also compete against the privates... If all these places were standing still, we could leapfrog ahead, but all the great universities are after the same things: trying to bring in research money, going after a lot of public/private ventures.

It's always about attracting more faculty and keeping the faculty that you have who are terrific, trying to give them the tools, the time they need to produce. People do try to steal faculty from each other. You do need to do some of that, but an even better strategy is to keep the incredibly good folks that you have and make sure they have what they need.

Q. With Connecticut facing this terrible deficit, if the governor directs you to come up with savings, are there any particular places you know you are going to look?

A. Well, you know, we're all looking at the same things in national higher education. I haven't been that finely tuned with the UConn budget yet, but I will say that we do not have a lot of levers. There are state appropriations and tuition, federal dollars that you can bring in through research, public/private partnerships. You can look in areas like IT [information technology] to see what your contracts are like, whether you can be more efficient there.. But the truth is we are not an industry that has a lot of fat.

At the end of the day, no matter how much you cut or how efficient you try to be, you still have to teach students directly and you have to spend time with them. And you want really great faculty. I think that a lot of what we're finding is that doing the basics just will cost a certain amount. We have to be very careful stewards of our taxpayers' money and our donors' money, but we also have to protect the central mission.

Q. You're living in the city of Atlanta now. Is it going to be hard to shift to a university in the country?

A. I grew up in a not so urban setting. We were a hard hour or so from New York City. We're used to being in sort of a far suburb. We also really like skiing and being outdoors. I've liked living in the city, in Chicago, L.A., but actually, it's really nice to be out where it's pretty: leaves and trees and all that. So we like both.

Q. But how do your kids feel about that. Isn't that a hard sell for teenagers? (Herbst's children are Daniel, 16, and Becky, 15.)

A. No, being teenagers they are very into what they are doing at the moment. One of the exciting things for them is to be right on a college campus. I mean, we are thrilled to be moving into Oak Hill, the president's house, because it couldn't be closer to campus, and they just find that incredibly exciting. Wherever we have been, they loved as teenagers to be in a college environment.

I will tell you to that being near snow again is a huge draw. It was very tough when we moved from upstate New York, we were in Albany, to Georgia because the weather here is gorgeous, but there is no snow. Daniel is snowboarding. Rebecca is skiing.

Q. Do you ski, too?

A. I do ski. I'm careful. I realize it is more of a young person's sport. My husband and I took it up in our 40s. My husband, he's good. I'm careful. I'm not taking any chances. I don't want to be hobbling around Storrs.

Q. Former UConn President Michael Hogan moved out of Oak Hill, apparently because his wife was sensitive to the mold.

A. I think the president's house is lovely. We are grateful to live on campus, to walk down the hill and be at UConn.

Q. One last very important question for some people. Red Sox or Yankees?

A. I grew up in New York, closer to the city. I grew up with Mets fans. As you spend your life in the university, you get more focused on your teams. A couple of people have made comments about me having gone to Duke. I promise that I'm UConn 100 percent!