When Judy D. Olian heard that Quinnipiac University was in the midst of an intensive search for a new president, she did what many of us do to research a potential new employer: she went to its website.
Online she learned more about the Hamden university and its longtime president, John Lahey. In his three-decades-plus tenure at the school, Lahey had helped it grow from a small private college of 1,900 students to a major institution with more than 10,000 students, multiple campuses, a college of arts and sciences and eight professional schools, including law and medical schools. Lahey also spearheaded the creation of a national poll and helped bring Division I sports to the university, all while the school’s endowment grew from $3 million to $530 million.
Olian, then the dean at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, was impressed by the breadth and scope of the Connecticut institution.
“This has been one of the most incredible success stories in higher education — building something from really a very, very little seed, to a major comprehensive university,” she says. “Very few universities in the country have Quinnipiac’s mix of schools, the professional schools along with arts and sciences.”
After a national search, Olian was selected to succeed a retiring Lahey as the university’s ninth president and first woman in that role. She started the position in July and is currently overseeing her first full semester at the school.
Born in Australia to parents whose lives were upended by the Holocaust, Olian had an international upbringing, living in Australia and Israel, and for a time in Europe. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her master’s and Ph.D. in industrial relations at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At UCLA she taught a popular course on leadership with Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment and owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
In her office on a rainy day before the start of the fall semester, Olian is enthusiastic as she talks about building on the school’s momentum and entering the next chapter of Quinnipiac’s history. She says Quinnipiac needs to continue training students for skills that are practical in today’s world.
“I think there are a lot of higher education institutions that educate really, really well, that teach and students learn,” she says. “But the question is do they learn what is needed for careers in the 21st century? We have a disconnect between the jobs out there and the people offering themselves for the jobs. We have the lowest unemployment rate almost in history, and yet we have a significant percent of college graduates who are underemployed or unemployed.”
Olian says Quinnipiac will bridge that gap through a variety of strategies, including required internships, immersion courses, simulations, or new degrees that better reflect market demand. “We’ve launched a new degree program in cyber security; we’ve launched a new degree program in data analytics,” Olian says.
As a female president of a large university, Olian is something of a rarity. According to the 2017 American College President Survey conducted by the American Council on Education and based on 2016 data, only 30 percent of college presidents across the country are women. Olian believes we will see more going forward.
“I just participated in a program for new presidents at Harvard and I think almost 50 percent of the people participating were female,” she says.
Bridgeport University recently introduced a woman president, Laura Skandera Trombley, and the University of Connecticut has been led by Susan Herbst since 2011, though she will step down in 2019.
Asked if gender has influenced her professionally, Olian responds, “I haven’t really thought of my career in gender terms. I tried to do the best job I could. Sometimes it was an advantage, sometimes it was a disadvantage, but I feel very, very committed to helping others of all forms of diverse backgrounds to be fulfilled, to be inspired, to have access, to be part of the community.”
Olian is aware of the great success of her predecessor, Lahey, yet is excited for the challenge of building for the future at Quinnipiac.
“There’s no question that we stand on the shoulders of everything that has been accomplished before us,” she says. “I must say, personally, I am violating my old rule. When people would come to me for career advice, I would say, ‘Pick your predecessor very carefully.’ I say that because it’s harder to follow a remarkably successful person, as is John Lahey. But I also think that this is an institution that’s full of energy, excitement, optimism, a vision to the future. So we’ll repot ourselves, we’re certainly not going to discard all of the great sources of excellence that exist here. We’ll build on them and we’ll go further. And with change so rapid, we also have to change.”