“Thanks Susan:” Misinterpreting the role of our president

A UConn subreddit ran a straw poll on President Susan Herbst and the results were not very positive. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Last month, a user on the UConn subreddit ran a (very unscientific) straw poll to see President Herbst’s approval rating. The results ended up with approximately two-thirds of those polled disapproving of her job performance, and the other third approving.

The interesting thing about the poll was not the results, but the comment section that followed. The biggest themes I saw throughout the comment section were a stark misunderstanding of what President Herbst actually does within her role, sprinkled with a little sexism and demonization. “What does she actually do?” asked the top-rated comment on the post. “All she does is fire union workers and give herself 100k+ bonuses” said another user. Another string of comments referred to President Herbst as a “c**t” because she owns two houses, with another user chiming in calling her such a word because all it means: “An unpleasant or stupid person.”

While the members of /r/UConn represent a unique minority of the student population, the results of the poll probably are not far off from the views many UConn students have on their university president. Herbst’s removed management style has polarized many students who view her lack of a public image as an indifference to student concerns. This lack of a public face gives rise to a wealth of theories and blame placed upon her. When tuition is hiked or a policy is changed many students blame her even if the changes were well out of her control. A look on social media will reveal a wave of sarcastic “Thanks Susan.”

What many students don’t realize is just how much is out of President Herbst’s control. Tuition hikes are often a reaction to yet another state funding cut rather than Herbst looking to spite students. Capital improvements and new projects are approved at the Board of Trustee level, not in Herbst’s Gulley office. Students would be surprised to see just how much Herbst is at mercy of the state. When state budget cuts are announced in the coming weeks it will be her job to clean up the damage but receive all the blame.

This laissez-faire leadership style has an important benefit: it demonstrates her commitment to the state government and board of trustees. While many probably wish Herbst would stand in the student section during basketball games with a blue and white painted face, the benefits of a president like that would not go far in reducing tuition fees everyone that complains about. Her professional relationship with those in the state government and board of trustees ensures that there is a mutual trust between the two. Without it, the budget cuts and political turmoil could be much worse than they are.

But this article would not be appropriate without addressing the sexism that surrounds Susan Herbst. I recall meeting her for the first time, and immediately recalling the Humans of New York interview with Hillary Clinton. “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions” said Secretary Clinton. “And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’” The quote was in response to a group of men harassing her during the law school examinations. She puts to words something I was never able to do: the perception of women in power and success seems like a lose-lose situation. If a woman is outgoing, they are seen as weak. If the same woman is reserved, they are seen as cold-hearted. Looking at Herbst through the same lens, the same analysis uncannily applies.

Next time something happens at our school, I encourage you to analyze the event from a wider perspective before jumping down Herbst’s throat. Things are almost always more complicated than they seem.


Colin Mortimer is a contributor to The Daily Campus Opinion section.  He can be reached via email at colin.mortimer@uconn.edu.