Storytime with Sten: My four meaningful/meaningless meetings with President Herbst

Susan Herbst held an open town hall in the Next Generation dormitory to field questions from the community on Monday, Sept. 13, 2016. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

I’ve written about University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst for both the Opinion and News sections of The Daily Campus. My words have rarely been friendly. Whether it’s her and her administration’s naked preference of STEM over the humanities, UConn’s rapid and rabid corporatization under her and her administration’s guidance, her and her administration’s ineffectuality when it comes to racism on campus or how handsomely rewarded for their duties she and her administration truly are, if Herbst has any idea who I am, she probably doesn’t like me.  

But with mere months remaining until my friends and I graduate from this institution, my instinctual propensity for reflection has led me to recollect and consider my four disparate interactions with the highest official on campus.

The first time I met Herbst was as a random student on his way to class. The second was as an eager, if tepid reporter on the night Bill Clinton came to UConn to accept a human rights prize. The third was as an aggressive and effective but undisciplined reporter at a student demonstration against bigotry. The fourth was as a washed-up Carriage resident going grocery shopping.

Bill Clinton did not come to UConn without controversy. Small bands of students bemoaned his reluctance to intervene in Rwanda, also pointing out the fact that Clinton presided over the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies in this country, but I made no mention of this to Herbst.  

I sometimes pretend at boldness, but that day outside of the Jorgensen, I’ll always regret not asking Herbst harder questions. I said nothing of these human rights violations. I did not inquire into any ulterior motives with regards to UConn’s showering of money and accolades on the Clinton family. Here’s what I did do, per my coverage of the event:

“The Daily Campus…spoke with…Herbst beforehand, who expressed her excitement for the ceremony.

“‘I am most looking forward to celebrating the Dodd Center, because I think it’s one of the gems here at UConn, and it has inspired so many students to go on to either work in human rights, or major in human rights, and it’s something that’s unique, in the country, so I’m really proud of it,’ Herbst said. ‘I was told that Duke [University] called us recently to find out about the human rights major and how that works, so I think that’s just one more piece of evidence of how we are a leader in this field.’

“Duke University is Herbst’s alma mater. Upon the mention, she simply laughed and said, ‘We’re just shooting out ahead of them.’”

Since that day, I’ve been trying to recover the reputation of muckraker and watchdog journalist I’d ascribed to myself before this “interview” of ours. It was pathetic, looking back. Perhaps I was rendered affable because of the nature of how I’d accosted her while she was with her class outside the theater. Maybe it was her watchful, well-dressed student acolytes that softened my resolve. Whatever the excuse, I wasn’t ready for the moment.

I found during my reunion with Herbst, our third time meeting, that with our solidified recognition of each other came a kind of bitterness.

This time, I was not to be denied. After extensive research, I knew Herbst was without a concrete plan to combat racism on campus. It’s not that she wanted racial slurs to be shouted at members of a black sorority; it’s not that she wished for Muslim students to deal with Islamophobia on campus; it’s that she didn’t want these things to happen because of the nightmarish public relations situations that inevitably arise from them. So when she made an appearance at the beginning of a student-led demonstration expressing solidarity with students who’d dealt with racism at other colleges and universities, I wanted to know where she’d been.

I approached her, introduced myself, and she said she had read some of my stories. She assented to a short dialogue, and I began after brandishing my phone to record the conversation. Identical to reporter Kyle Constable’s lengthy interview with Herbst, where she was unable to answer a single question posed to her and was often antagonistic toward Constable, her Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Kirk was there to save the day at that protest on Fairfield Way:

“When asked why Herbst decided to attend this specific event and not others like it last year, she said prior obligations prevented her from attending. 

“‘I’m always interested in the students, so I don’t know when that protest was or – ’ at this point, Herbst’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Kirk, cut in; ‘There was one to Gulley Hall, but I think you were on the road that day,’ to which Herbst responded: ‘Yeah, I must have been. I’ve talked about these issues with students a lot, and I’m happy to be here.’

“‘I thought we did a good job – mostly the students – of getting the word out on Monday. I’m here to listen, I’m here to hear people’s stories,’ Herbst added.”

I was unable to ask follow-up questions, taken aback as I was by Herbst’s brazen indifference when it comes to other social justice movements on campus. This back and forth with Herbst occurred soon after Missouri University President Tim Wolfe was forced to step down due to his ineptitude in dealing with racism on campus.

Aside from these more professional encounters with Herbst were personal run-ins where neither president nor student knew how to react.

My initial meeting of Mrs. Herbst took place when I was late for class in Austin and walking quickly on the road past Wilbur-Cross, whereupon she crossed my path on her way to the center of campus. We exchanged a look of uncertain familiarity. I remember it was cold outside and nobody was nearby.

“Hello, President.” President? Why?

“Hi there, how are you?”

She asked where I was headed and how I was. I wondered if she had read my stories, many of which malign her. After a few minutes of small talk we went our own ways. She likely thought I was just another student, not placing any special significance on my countenance.

The last time I saw Herbst she was with her husband at Price Chopper. We saw each other awkwardly, then acted as if we had not.

How do I reconcile the cordial, albeit phony nature of my experiences with Herbst outside of the pages of The Daily Campus with what I’ve written of her and believe to be true of her leadership? And how important is a student’s relationship with the university president in general?

The answer to these questions depends on the student. For my part, I’d like to thank President Herbst. Even though I don’t agree with her running of the university like a business, as an aspiring journalist, I don’t know where I’d be without her.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.