Senior staff writer Kyle Constable interviewed University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst during her office hours on Friday, April 29, 2016. She was joined by her deputy chief of staff, Michael Kirk. Herbst addresses the Torrington campus, the Co-op and the future of the university in the face of uncertainty during the discussion. The full transcript of the interview follows.
Constable: So, I wanted to talk a little bit about change, because this is for the graduation issue, and there are going to be a lot of seniors leaving a place that’s going to be very different as soon as next year. It’s a time of tremendous uncertainty for UConn. The Torrington campus is closing. The long-time bookstore, the Co-op, is no longer going to service the university. The university is continuing to face state budget cuts. There are issues with state bonding that are affecting university projects. How is the university handling all of this uncertainty?
Herbst: Well, I think you may be over wording a lot of this. So let’s take them one at a time, because they are very different issues. And first, I have to say that campus is gonna change for the better. Demolition is starting this summer for the new rec center, which is going to be a profound change in student life that is going to be fabulous. So, I don’t know if I’d be so gloomy – not to future students. On budget, we’re managing. Yeah, we have to be more efficient, we have to make some more cuts, but we’re—I think—doing really well protecting the student academic experience, the student experience and the faculty, the research, supporting our staff. So, yeah, I mean, there’s some uncertainty, but that’s— you’re asking the wrong person, because it’s been like that since I arrived five years ago. So it’s been budget cuts pretty much every year since I arrived, and it’s common in public higher education. And the (private universities) have their issues, too, so I don’t, I guess— I know that for, you know you want to make some kind of bracket at the end of something, but for us it’s the work we do every day for five years, and we are very positive here and look to the future. We’ve got great stuff coming.
Herbst: Alright, so what are the other issues? So the budget, yeah, it’s uncertain, but it has been and we manage it. I mean, we always do. We’ve got no choice. I mean, UConn’s here for— we’re not going to close down and go out of business. And we’re not gonna get worse. We’re not gonna lessen your degree. And that’s what you guys should be worried about is you’re going to be alumni, and you want your degree to be valuable. Book Center, we’re very excited about it. It is going to be fabulous. We’re thrilled about the on-campus location, the Storrs Center location and downtown Hartford, which has not had a proper bookstore in forever. So, that is going to be great. I can talk all I want – you’ll see it when you come back. And it’s gonna keep your costs down, it’s going to serve you even better. It’s going to serve the community fabulously. I think it’s a great change. But don’t take it from me. Come back in the fall and see it yourself, or actually, after June 1. The downtown Hartford campus, not for another year, though – so don’t go back over there. It won’t be there yet.
Constable: So let’s talk a little bit about the Torrington campus. I imagine that’s going to go down as one of the harder decisions you had to make as university president.
Herbst gives a facial expression to indicate otherwise.
Constable: Or maybe not?
Herbst: No, I mean, it’s actually been talked about for decades. It’s hard in that people are upset about it. But in terms of what’s best for the university, it was very clear to us that there’s not enough demand for that campus.
Constable: There are those who argue the university set up the Torrington campus for failure, in terms of drawing down its faculty, in terms of drawing down its student enrollment and—
Herbst: Did you go the board meeting?
Constable: I didn’t have the chance to, because—
Herbst: Yeah, I think you need to talk to Sally Reis. Yeah. She’s been managing it, and she explained all that. And we have made tremendous efforts there in marketing all different kinds of apertures and venues. The demand is not there, and we did not set up the place for failure. And it is unfortunate that people use that kind of rhetoric, but I ask you to study the issues before you come here. You know, so, did you talk to Sally?
Constable: I’m merely asking the question.
Constable reiterates this conversation is for the graduation issue and is meant to be a transcribed conversation with Herbst.
Herbst: Yeah, so I would talk to Sally. Stephanie Reitz, did you talk to her about the issue at all?
Constable: Just looking for perspective, is all. So you don’t believe the university set up the Torrington campus for failure?
Herbst: Absolutely not. But I would not— yes.
Constable: That’s all I was asking.
Herbst: Yeah— probably better— yeah— I hope that in the future, you can look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question.
Constable: This isn’t my question. This is a question as a journalist that I’m asking you, and if you take issue—
Herbst: No, I don’t. Journalists do legwork, too.
Constable: Of course. And I think there is a legitimate question to be asked, because—
Herbst: Yeah, after studying the issue. Yeah.
Constable: The state is pulling a lot of resources out of Litchfield County as a whole. In some ways, it feels like UConn may be piling on in that sense. Not necessarily that the university is guilty of any individual bad action, but that the actions as a whole, Litchfield County is losing a lot of its resources, and UConn having a campus there, a lot of people considered that to be a valuable asset from the state to give them a link out to the rest of the state. Now, more and more, Litchfield County is becoming isolated. Is the university worried about that impact at all?
Herbst: I don’t know— I don’t know these other pieces. All we know about is our campus, our students, the university, trying to serve the state as a higher education. So, I don’t know those other things you’re talking about, pulling out— I don’t know anything about them.
Constable: Let’s pivot, then. Obviously, you want the students that are at the Torrington campus now to, ideally, enroll at one of the other branch campuses. Talk about the transition to either Waterbury or Storrs or somewhere else for those students.
Herbst: Yes, we will help individual students do those things.
Constable: And can you talk about how the Waterbury campus might be able to continue offering the resources to students in Litchfield County—
Herbst: They’re ready. And if you’d been to the board meeting, you would have saw that they had the Waterbury campus talk about that, as well as our vice provost.
The Co-op, Barnes & Noble
Constable: The Co-op has been an institution at the university for a very, very long time. There were questions about its ability fiscally sustainable in the long term for some time. Looking at the Storrs Center bookstore location – folks over at the Co-op would say they were forced into it despite the fact that they knew it would put them in a position to make the fiscally unsustainable. Did the university make a decision that ultimately resulted in the Co-op not being able to remain its bookstore?
Herbst: No, and we have communicated a lot on this subject, yeah, we’re done. (Looking at deputy chief of staff Michael Kirk) You have anything to add?
Kirk: About the Co-op?
Kirk: No, I mean, it’s important to keep in mind this change wasn’t just about whether or not the Co-op was profitable. Whether it’s profitable or not, the concern on their part was they didn’t they could make it for the long term. They didn’t have a way out, other than a university bailout. At the same time, there was mounting complaints from students, and faculty and fans and others saying this is not the bookstore that we want, not the bookstore we need. So those things combined led the university to say, “We should look at what our alternatives are.” It’s wasn’t just, “Oh, the Co-op’s not profitable, therefore—” It was, “We’re not getting the kind of service out of this that we need as big university in the 21st century.”
Constable: So talk a little bit about what Barnes & Noble brings to the table for the future of the university.
Herbst: Yeah, we had— have you read all our material about this?
Constable: Of course.
Herbst: Yeah, so, have you been to Barnes & Noble recently? Like the Yale Co-op?
Constable: Yes, earlier this week.
Herbst: That’s what you’re going to get, getting great programming. We’ll have guarantees on how many community programs and authors, but we’ll have our own events there, too. You will have a guarantee about textbook prices and a matching program, which we don’t have right now. There will be more and diverse gear. I mean, I think you see the difference between the Yale bookstore and what we’ve had. So, there it was, right in front of you.
Value of UConn degree
Constable: The biggest thing I imagine most people graduating are always concerned about is, in fact, the value of their degree. You mentioned it already. What is the university doing in the face of some of these changes to ensure the value of that degree will continue to rise in the coming years?
Herbst: Yeah, we’ve got to put more money into academics, even if that means moving around money or closing certain departments or campuses to hire more and better faculty (and) boost the research mission, take more students who are highly qualified to come here, give them great opportunities – whether it’s entrepreneurship or internships, career services, leadership programs. All those things help to make for a better place, and we intend to do them all as we have been doing for five years.
Constable: My last question has to do with ongoing contract negotiations with faculty in particular. There was an article in today’s edition of The Daily Campus that indicated that the negotiations with AAUP could go on for as long as another year. Is there any concern about the attractiveness of the university to faculty who might want to come here with these ongoing contract negotiations creating uncertainty?
Herbst: We haven’t heard anything yet from faculty who are coming, who signed up to come here when negotiations were still going on. But, you know, I don’t know. That’s an open question. I doubt it, because new faculty come in. They have their salary they’re set at. It might be some uncertainty about what increase they’ll get over the coming years. But yeah, I mean, this one’s out of our hands. We would love to negotiate and have a contract.