Incoming UConn president has business to attend to
A year into his job as dean of engineering at Duke University in 2009, Tom Katsouleas was praised for launching programs in the middle of an economic downturn that helped shape the future direction of the private research university.
His goal, he told the university’s The Chronicle at the time, was to transform the Duke from a repository of knowledge to a “knowledge creation engine.”
That mind-set is what helped seal the deal for Gov. Ned Lamont and others that Katsouleas won’t merely help the state’s flagship university grow, but the state as well.
“It was tricky, but we got it right,” Lamont said Tuesday as Katsouleas, who has spent the past two years at the University of Virginia, was introduced to succeed University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst when she steps down this summer.
Lamont met twice with Katsouleas — the second time with a group of business leaders representing insurance, manufacturing and financial sectors — to not only get their take on the guy, he said, but to remind them all of the key role UConn should play in reviving the state’s economy.
“I look forward to working with Tom in ensuring that the university and our state’s economic development team, large corporations, small businesses and start-ups alike are working together to develop a pipeline of talent and an environment that supports business development and economic growth,” Lamont said.
The governor is not alone.
Lawmakers and business leaders said that despite the state’s financial troubles — which among other things have led to diminished state support to higher education — they see UConn as a good investment that can draw talent, jobs and businesses to the state.
“UConn is the crown jewel of our public higher education system, serving as an economic engine and attracting families to live in our state,” said Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “While Tom will be president of UConn, he will need the support of the legislature and the broader public at large.”
‘A great catch’
A well-known scholar and inventor who has held posts at three top public research institutional, Katsouleas was described as a ‘great catch’ by UConn Board of Trustees Chairman Thomas Kruger.
Quick with a smile, Katsouleas, 60, in his opening introduction on campus, knew how to endear the crowd capping off the end of his prepared remarks with “Go Huskies!”
He said he believes the legislature’s diminished support has been driven by budget necessities, not ideology. And he pledged to make sure university priorities are aligned with those of the state.
Katsouleas’ “to do” list includes doubling research dollars over the next decade, making audacious asks of donors, protecting future revenue streams and putting UConn into the center of a national conversation about the changing role of higher education.
The time is right, he said, to capitalize on the multi-billion-dollar investment the state has made in UConn’s infrastructure over two decades.
That said, Katsouleas said he hopes to stop the steady shift of supporting the flagship university’s $2.4 billion budget from taxpayer to parent.
“Tuition increase will be last resort,” Katsouleas said.
What he leads
The state has invested mightily in UConn over the past 20 years, spending more than $3 billion on the UConn 2000 project and another $1.5 billion on Next Generation CT and $864 million on a bio-science center.
The investment helped to attract Jackson Lab, a medical research institute, to the state.
State Senator Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven. wants to see more of that.
“Having a strong, healthy, vibrant state flagship university is very critical to the state’s economy,” Loone said. “It needs to grow more.”
UConn is said to have a $3.4 billion annual economic impact on the state’s economy. That includes 24,000 UConn supported jobs and business partnerships. There are 32,000 students. Last year, UConn receive $82.4 million in private donations. Its endowment portfolio is valued at $447.7 million.
Joe Brennan, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said he hears from members all the time about the need for more talent development.
“The role of UConn in particular and higher ed in general is critical,” Brennan said.
He was not among business leaders that met with Katsouleas, but from what he hears, the new UConn president has pledged to do his part.
What Katsouleas said he took from meeting with the business leaders assembled by Lamont was that they already employ UConn grads, and would take more, with the right credentials.
“(UConn) is one of the greatest assets we have,” said Joseph Carbone, president of the Workplace in Bridgeport, who sat on Lamont’s Jobs/Economy Policy Committee.
Connecticut isn’t the cheapest place to set up shop, Carbone admits. But he said it filled with smart people, drawn from all over the world, due in large part to universities like UConn.
“They are an institution that can help us to overcome a stagnant population,” Carbone said. “If I had my way, we would make tuition as cheap as we can and do more to boost UConn’s research role. That leads to new ideas, new businesses, more jobs created.”
What is expected of him
State Sen Will Haskell, D-Westport, a recent Georgetown University grad, said he hasn’t met Katsouleas, but that Katsouleas seems like a wonderful fit.
“I hope he will direct energy and investment into UConn’s regional campuses,” Haskell said. Those campuses include one in Stamford.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford — whose father, Tom Ritter, is on the UConn Board of Trustees — agreed that the university is so much more than Storrs.
“Look at the impact UConn had on Hartford when it moved downtown,” Ritter said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, a ranking member of the legislature’s Appropriation’s Committee, said what is most important to her is that the new president be transparent about university finances and activities.
“I hope he will be judicious and rigorous about spending and do everything possible to control rising tuition costs,” Lavielle said. “And I hope that in building relationships with the business community, he will make sure that everyone remembers that higher education involves much more than career preparation.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, wants Katsouleas to keep UConn’s upward trajectory going.
“UConn brings people into the state. It makes people excited about the state,” she said.
Among UConn graduates overall, 76 percent stay in the state, and 27 percent of grads who came from out of state originally stick around after graduation for work.
Still, Klarides said, she also wants UConn to be more efficient, citing administrative costs she believes are among the highest of any state university in the country. It is an assertion UConn officials dispute.
Looney, meanwhile, hopes to avoid previous legislative battles over how many classes UConn faculty teach.
“That undermines status of UConn as a major research university,” he said.
Where as lawmakers see someone who can make an economic splash, faculty see a scholar.
That may not mesh with his political duties, but Hedley Freake, a professor of nutrition and chairman of UConn’s Senate Executive Committee, said from what he has heard, Katsouleas can handle both.
“He understands the role that the university can play in the economic development of the state,” Freake said.
Tom Bontly, a faculty member in the school’s philosophy department and president of the UConn chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he is optimistic Katsouleas is what the university needs.
He wanted an academic. He wanted someone who could work with faculty, as Bontly said Herbst did. He likes that in Katsouleas, the university has hired a scientist with patents to his name and who seems to know how to reach out to industry and better integrate the university with state economy.
“The university does quite a lot now,” Bontly said. “It just doesn’t get a lot of the attention.”