UConn president moves on A passion for research, teaching
STORRS — Susan Herbst bristles when people refer to her planned departure next July as the University of Connecticut’s first female president as a retirement.
“Going to the faculty is a really important job,” said Herbst on the last week before students return for the fall semester. “The highest job at a university is to be a professor and teach our students, create solutions to problems and improve the world through research.”
Outside the red-bricked Gulley Hall, hard-hatted work crews seemed to be on every inch of the flagship university’s 4,000 acre campus in a final push toward a fall semester that starts Aug. 27.
When classes start, Herbst plans to be in Stamford, back in the classroom and guiding students through the intricacies of the American political system.
A professor of public opinion and politics, Herbst has taught two classes during her tenure at UConn including one while the Republican primaries were going on in 2016. She is also working on a book on understanding today’s political climate through the lens of politics during the 1930s and Great Depression.
“A lot of my research and my connections are in New York,” Herbst said.
David Yalof, head of UConn’s political science department, called her one of the premier scholars in the country in her field and said she would fit right in to his department.
“Even as president, she has continued to edit a prestigious series on American politics for the University of Chicago Press, one of the top-rated presses in the discipline,” Yalof said. “Her presence in the department should prove a terrific boon to those students who are lucky enough to take her classes.”
At 55, Herbst announced in May that the 2018-19 academic year would be her last as president. The timing allows for whomever is elected as the state’s new governor in November to weigh in on the next president, although Herbst denies that the timeline played a role in her decision.
“My goal has always been to get back to my scholarly work,” Herbst said. “I went into academia to be a scholar and a teacher.”
Eight years of change
UConn of 2018 is different from the one she arrived at eight summers ago in June 2011.
There are more students, more buildings, more alumni giving and more faculty.
Most important to Herbst, she said, is a new mindset.
“When I got here, unlike most great research universities, there was not enough talk about excellence,” said Herbst. “Not that there wasn’t excellent people here but we should always be aiming at the top. That drive wasn’t talked about — but now you see it in everything we do.”
Then, as now, Herbst talked of placing UConn in the same research league as a Michigan State, a UCLA or a Wisconsin. UConn has risen in the public research university rankings from 38 to 18 since since 2000 but is still looking up at UCLA, which is tied for first, Michigan at fourth and Wisconsin at 12th.
“In many fields, we are not there yet,” said Herbst. “It is our duty to be the very best public university in this state ... That is what I am trying to build here.”
In deciding to return to the career she called her life’s calling and at the Stamford campus, Herbst said she will settle in a really exciting place.
“Stamford is blooming,” said Herbst. “I think the students are wonderful ... Enrollment has skyrocketed. I think it is an exciting town and a great place to live.”
UConn Stamford has about 2,000 students this fall, including about 650 freshmen and 420 students living in student housing.
Eight years ago, UConn Stamford enrolled about 1,275 commuters.
UConn Stamford became the first branch to offer student housing, with one residence hall last year and a second this fall.
Asked if she would have done anything differently during her tenure, Herbst had a hard time responding.
Looking back can be debilitating, she said. Running a $2.3 billion operation is complex.
In 2013, the university faced a Title IX complaint from several current and former students who said UConn didn’t protect them or respond appropriately when they reported sexual assaults. UConn paid out more than $1 million to settle the case.
“All universities have learned about the nature of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses,” Herbst said. “I think we have implemented a ton of new programs to try and prevent sexual harassment and assault. You learn from all of these incidents. You try to get better.”
Money has always been an issue. While the state has showered UConn with billions in capital dollars, its support to the university budget has diminished by $164 million since 2010.
This past legislative session was especially contentious, with Herbst saying a Republican plan to slash the UConn budget would “decimate” the university.
Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, fired back, saying Herbst had shown an inability to properly manage UConn finances and should consider resigning.
Herbst said it’s her job to protect a great state asset and investment.
“We’ve got to be part of the solution as the state tries to climb out of its economic woes,” Herbst said. That won’t come, she added, by cutting corners.
“This is may be the most critical point I can make,” Herbst said. “Cuts in (state) appropriations has made it very difficult to give out the amount of financial aid we should be giving out ... We can’t put all of our money in financial aid or we couldn’t bring professors here we need. That is the most dangerous and worrisome thing that has happened.”
The sticker price at UConn this fall for full-time instate undergraduates when all fees are counted is $28,604. Herbst called it an unbelievable value.
“Most students are not paying close to sticker price,” she added.
UConn’s institutionally funded financial aid budget in FY 2019 is $183.9 million, nearly twice what the University provided 10 years ago. Herbst said it is not enough.
The next president
While the Stamford campus picks up one additional professor next year in Herbst, UConn will welcome a new president culled from an ongoing national search.
All Herbst would say about her successor is that he or she ought to be an academic.
“When you rise up through the ranks (of a research university), you learn to navigate all of the requests coming at you and figure out what moves a whole university ahead,” Herbst said. “A new president will try to enhance the student experience, keep bringing faculty here and be an engine for economic development.”