Final Say: Susan Herbst

 

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Susan Herbst, 49, is the 15th president of the University of Connecticut and the first woman to serve in that office. She is also a scholar of public opinion, media and politics, and the author of four books. She lives in Storrs.
 

Priorities first: What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream at the UConn Dairy Bar?
Coconut. Definitely. It has been a seasonal flavor, but I think they’re going to start to make it all year round.

What was something that you were surprised to learn about UConn that you didn’t know about until you got here?
I guess I was generally surprised at the level of student philanthropy—student engagement in social service and philanthropy. One of the most exciting things that the students do is a dance marathon for children’s health care. They raise a couple hundred thousand dollars a year every winter. That’s an example of the kind of constant student service to community and philanthropy. It’s at a very high level here, and that was surprising in a good way.

How was it coming to the school as an outsider?
I guess I’m not that much of an outsider because I grew up in the Northeast, so UConn is a place I’ve known a lot about for a long time. University presidents many, many times are from the outside, and the reason is that you want to bring in people with national experience who bring fresh practices and new perspectives. I think I’m accustomed to walking into new institutions, and UConn has had, most of its presidents in recent memory have been from the outside.

Your career has taken you up and own the Eastern seaboard—what is it that you like about Connecticut?
Connecticut is a great state that has long cared about public higher education. It’s made a huge investment in the University of Connecticut. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a progressive place.

Your older brother is president of Colgate University—any sibling rivalry there?
Yes and no. [laughs] I think there’s rivalry in a fun way. It can be pretty hilarious because what we do is very similar. We’re different people and have different scholarly backgrounds, but on the whole, a lot of the day-to-day is the same. As with any leadership position, it’s a lot of management of personnel, and for university presidents, it’s a lot of fundraising. So that’s something that he and I have most in common, is that the future of institutions are in philanthropy. We need to cultivate our friends and our donors to help us with that.

Your younger brother is a vice president with NASCAR—
He is! He’s always been in sports management. He was in the NBA for about 20 years, and has always enjoyed that. So my older brother and I are more academic, while my younger brother has been in a far more exciting, thrilling world of sports.

If all three of you were on the racetrack, who would win?
The Herbsts are a cautious people. [laughs] It’d be hard to imagine us doing it, but I think it would have to be the NASCAR brother just because he’s definitely closer to it than we are.

Having written extensively about politics and public opinion, how critical is that to running a public university?
I think it’s helpful. Public opinion is something I’ve studied my whole life: How you measure it, how people express their opinions, etc. I think it’s helpful because we at UConn have an extremely diverse public. We have many publics, I guess is a better way to put it. We have the broad public, that sort of national and international public, and we try recruit students from all around the world. We try to recruit faculty from all around the world. We then have our state constituency—this is a state flagship, so the people of Connecticut, we need to communicate with them often, hear their opinions, make sure we understand them. Our legislature, our alumni base, our donors and of course, our current students and parents—so it’s a lot of different publics, and I do think having studied public opinion and how complex it is, does help me. That’s not to say that presidents from different fields can’t do this as well, but I do think it’s useful.

How has the transition been from classroom to administrator?
It was pretty seamless. My path is fairly common. Most university presidents start out as faculty members, then they build their research record, and they teach students and advise students, and they do a lot of university service. So what happens with a lot people is that they do more and more university service and then they start to realize that they might as well be in leadership positions and have more influence, but also more responsibility. There are a lot of people who are satisfied never taking those leadership roles and stay with students and their research. But then, some people become leaders. I hope some day upon my retirement that I would go back to the faculty again, and take up my research and teach students, because I do miss teaching.

When you came aboard, you talked about teaching classes in addition to being president. Is that no longer viable?
No, I’ll do it eventually when things slow down. “When things slow down”—put that in italics. [laughs] We’ve got a lot change, there’s a lot to do at UConn, and my No. 1 responsibility is to lead the university. Teaching is what I’d like to do, but it’s got to take a backseat to running UConn.

What is it about teaching that you like so much?
First of all, from a selfish perspective, students keep you young. They’re so tuned in with today and the future that they’re really inspiring, I think. And that’s why, even in some down times here for America, college campuses are really happy, upbeat places because that’s the way students are. They’re effervescent, they’re hopeful, you can’t keep them down. They’re just very positive. So that’s one reason why many people like to teach. Students are energizing. People who are 18 to 23 are very upbeat.

But also, I think, leaders should keep a foot in the classroom as best they can. Because if they don’t, they forget what the students are like, and that’s very important to understand if you’re running the university. And also what it’s like to be a faculty member. Students and faculty are what make the university go round, and what make it strong. So the president, and all the administration, need to be in very close touch with that. Some university presidents just see students for special events and award ceremonies and commencements, and that’s not enough. You really need to have a better, textured, day-to-day experience with the students to understand what their struggles are, what life is like for someone who is young here in the early 21st century.

You’ve spoken about your passion for reading—what book are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading this great book called The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s excellent. So far, it’s about college students in the ‘80s, it all takes place at Brown University, and a lot of it is about literary criticism and growing up. It’s my kind of favorite book because it’s a little about higher education and also it’s contemporary fiction.

You’ve written extensively about academic subjects but have you ever considered writing fiction?
You know I’ve thought about it, but I’m not really capable of it. [laughs] I mean, I read too many great novels and I realize that it’s a different kind of writing. But if I ever do write a novel, it’ll definitely take place at a major research university . . . based on many characters I’ve met.

Do you keep notes?
No, because you know, they might be found. [laughs]

You were a debater in high school.
Yes. My older brother and I actually debated together for a year, and it was hilarious. We’d debate the other team but we were also fighting with each other.

Debate club topic: Have athletics become too big a part of the college experience?
I don’t think that they’ve become too big a part of the college experience, but I do think they have become overly time consuming and complicated for a lot of the administrators. The level of excitement that they bring and the joy that they bring is great, it’s just a matter of how they get managed. The truth is that the costs are high as travel becomes increasingly expensive. For us, in the Big East, we’re going to have to travel further to play ball. That kind of thing is hard to manage. But I think it’s right in terms of its place in student life. Its place, budgetarily in terms of the time it takes to handle it, that has gotten very hard to manage.

Final Say: Susan Herbst

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