Susan Herbst talks budget cuts, state endowments and the future of UConn

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(Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

The Daily Campus News Editor Marlese Lessing sat down with University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst to discuss the past year, as well as the upcoming obstacles that the university may face with looming cuts and the gubernatorial election. The transcript, which has been edited for clarity, is as follows.

Marlese Lessing: Looking into next year, what is going to be the biggest challenge that UConn has to face moving forward?

Susan Herbst: I think the budget again. I think as the state turns around its economy, it’s a work in progress, it’s a multi-year work in progress. I think we’ll struggle with our own budget as a result for the next few years.the rest of it is just gonna be what we usually work on at the university, working on communications, on fundraising, building our faculty, improving our curriculum. But the budget is such a driver of what we can and cannot do that it stands alone as our greatest issue.

Lessing: You mentioned at the Board of Trustees Meeting [earlier that day] that you had already budgeted for some of the expected cuts coming up within the budget, at least from the Democrat proposed side of it, however, not from the side proposed from the GOP. If the one proposed by the GOP, which has about $100 million in cuts, were to go through, what’s gonna be first on the chopping block?

Herbst: We don’t know. It’ll be worrisome and we’ll have to have many meetings and discussions because we’ve already cut so much from our big reductions last fall, and before that, we’re going to have some hard choices to make.

Lessing: What’re your general criteria when you’re trying to figure out which programs to reduce?

Herbst: It may not necessarily by programs, it may not be filling vacancies. We’ll try to protect the academic mission most of all, protect the student’s education, health, welfare. But, everything will be on the table, but that’s at the center of what we do, we’d want to protect research, faculty research.

Lessing: So anything not particularly pertaining to research may be at risk for being cut?

Herbst: So research would be cut, too, don’t get me wrong. When I say ‘protect’ I don’t mean ‘not touch’ because everything would be touched by that big a budget cut. We would have to absolutely reduce programming, not fill vacancies. Most of the university budget is in personnel, so you’d not fill vacancies. And that’s tough on the staff side, on the administration side, it’s tough on the academic side, because we want to hire as many tenure-line faculty as possible, and you can’t hire tenure-line faculty– which you have to budget as lifetime appointments, you have to budget it out like you’re paying them forever. It means we have to fill those spots instead with adjunct professors. We have great adjunct professors and classes, but you need tenure-line faculty.

Lessing: Would you say UConn Gives was a direct response to the multitude of cuts we’ve been facing?

Herbst: [Interrupting] No. You never raise money based on being cut by your state. You don’t go to donors and say, oh, would you help us make it up. No, that was part of general fundraising, which is something a lot of universities do. It was an experiment, and it went incredibly well. We had several hundred of thousands of dollars raised. There are so many ways to ask people for money, and that just one. It’s a high profile way to do it that reaches a lot of people. A lot of fundraising work is day to day, it’s looking for people out there who are interested in the university, cultivating them, teaching them about it and asking them for a gift. As you can imagine, I spend most of my fundraising time on the major gifts. That said, I go to a lot of alumni events, general events. Philanthropy is our future. We have, for a university our size and ambition, our endowment is tiny, and that’s not good. It’s a $450 million endowment. It sounds big, it’s not. It’s not good at all. We should be at least $1.5, $2 billion in this day and age, for our size, for our quality, for our ambitions. Our endowment is tiny, it’s the same reason for all the New England publics. They’re very progressive, and they thought, decades ago, that the state would always support the university as needed, with no need for private fundraising that much. That turns out not to be the case at all. You’ll see a lot of the new publics have a lot of smaller endowments than they hope. That’s something we have to work on. It’s gonna take years. When I say now, $1.2 billion dollars, as we get closer to that number we should be getting  $3 or $4 billion. You want to do more and you’re competing with all national universities.

Lessing: Speaking of endowments, and talking to the state about getting more endowments, the governor’s election is in full swing. Considering the backlash a lot of citizens have against Malloy, there’s a very good chance we could have a conservative governor of Connecticut. What would you say, as the president of UConn, is something you’d be looking for in the governor taking over Malloy’s seat?

Herbst: Well, we’re completely nonpartisan. We’ve had Republican governors and Democratic governors who’ve been great to the university, and that’s evidenced in the place. Whoever is the governor, we look forward to working with that person, and as we have with governors past, we will make the case for UConn, that we turn our investment on the state, that we drive our state’s economy. Students who come to UConn whether they’re from Connecticut or they’re from outside of Connecticut, if they come to the university, there’s a high likelihood they’ll stay in Connecticut. We bring people to the state. We educate our youth, teach them to be citizens, taxpayers, to be community leaders, let the political process go. We stay out of it. We’re happy to work with whoever gets elected

Lessing: Politics aside, what would you want from a governor to do for the university?

Herbst: Excellent funding. We really do, we really have been cut a few hundred million dollars in the last few years, and it prevents us from really leaping ahead from where we want to be. Our students are fantastic, we aren’t having trouble recruiting graduate, undergraduate students, our applications are at record highs these past few years. It’s building our faculty. We’ve been building our capital projects, I mean, look at our buildings, they’re terrific. But they’re not really going to mean anything to the state if we return on investment to the state, unless we have faculty to put in them, so, something we talk about a lot with the legislator is the state, they’ve built everything but the Werth building, which was built with private money. Every other building is due to the state of Connecticut. The rec center is also, that’s students fees and it’s bonded by us. But other than that, so we have these great buildings, they won’t really operate unless we have smart, active human beings operating them. Any increase in our budget is used to hire more faculty and staff.

Lessing: Not necessarily to reduce tuition for students?

Herbst: That would be great. It’s unlikely.

Lessing: If, hypothetically, you receive that endowment, would you reduce tuition?

Herbst: The endowment would have to be super-high. A lot of the endowment money is used for student scholarships. So, we’re focused on helping the students who need help, on needy students, on students who need financial aid. So yes, building the endowment, that’s always the number one fundraising priority is financial aid. There’s financial aid that comes from the state, financial aid that comes from our budget, but yeah, it’s good for you to tie that together, because building our endowment is about building those student scholarships. So that’s how you’d get the tuition decreased, aid for students who need it.

Lessing: So you’d say you apply it more by scholarships than–

Herbst: [interrupting] By need.

Lessing: Why wouldn’t it be better to reduce tuition wholesale?

Herbst: We can’t because we can’t operate the university.

Lessing: Even with hypothetical endowment?

Herbst: Well, how big are we talking? [laughs].

Lessing: Say you got that $2 billion endowment.

Herbst: If say we were up to $2 billion in one or two years, absolutely, we could consider it, it would be a beautiful world. But getting to one or two billion dollars is a pretty heavy lift. I think that would be terrific.

Lessing: Earlier in April, you were very much against a proposition that UConn be a more entrepreneurial-focused school. This is coming after a $22 million donation to the university specifically for promoting programs involving entrepreneurship. Why wouldn’t you want UConn–

Herbst: [Interrupting] We’re all for entrepreneurship. I think your premise is not accurate, and we were very clear: we are all for entrepreneurship. That’s why we got that gift. But there particular parts of that bill we didn’t agree with, and we will argue against it.

Lessing: Can you be a little more specific, please?

Herbst: We’re talking to senators about that.

Lessing: You said specifically in your speech that the bill would take away the academic focus of UConn.

Herbst: Well, it would narrow it, so dramatically that we wouldn’t be able to be a comprehensive research university.

Lessing: So you would say the priority of the university is still based in research?

Herbst: Yeah, but they’re not opposed to each other. There’s research on entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship fits with our mission, so I wouldn’t put them in opposition to each other. They’re not mutually exclusive. As its place, you wouldn’t want to have one big thing for a comprehensive research university. That’s what I would argue.

Lessing: A lot of people are advocating for the University of Connecticut to shift its focus from research to more holistic technical training, such as entrepreneurship, and so on. Especially if you want to fulfill the statement that UConn is producing workers.

Herbst: And we do do that. We’re not a technical school, and that’s not our character that’s not what the state of Connecticut ever wanted us to be. That said, we always want our students to have great careers, and we always want to place them in the industry. We place a huge number of students at The Hartford, Cigna, Pratt and Whitney, ESPN, so we’re working on our academic programs so that we can produce the workforce of the future. It’s just that at our level, a place that gives out bachelor’s degrees.

Lessing: Even as a research university, studies have shown that more students are looking for worth in a degree, or more technically inclined degrees, because they’ll know it’ll guarantee them a job. Would you say that UConn is shifting that focus to reflect that desire?

Herbst: No. And I mean, students have to choose where they want to go to school. And if you want to be an engineer, that’s a technical degree. We have a great engineering school. If you want to be a history major, come to UConn. If you’re a great student, an English major, come to UConn. All those things are incredibly important to us. If you want some kind of technical education that is not, say, a BS in actuarial science, or accounting, or fields that have a direct application immediately towards a job, then you’ve got to think this through for yourself and your future. And a lot of liberal arts majors, I’m a political science major, and it wasn’t clear what I was going to be after I was done getting my BA. I loved it, I thought it was great. It worked out ok, i found my way, my folks were good with it. This is the kind of place we are, these are the kinds of programs we have. And we’ll always try to make them better and high quality. Our departments can always hire more faculty, have more classes, and so forth.

Lessing: There has been a lot of focus recently, especially in terms of new buildings, in regards to the STEM area of UConn. There’s the new science complex that’s going to be built on North Eagleville, as well as new programs being launched. A lot of people are saying that the more liberal arts side of UConn is being neglected, and UConn is turning into a STEM school.

Herbst: I disagree. The challenge for people here to understand is that STEM takes certain kinds of facilities and equipment. Let’s take my base as a political scientist. Faculty in political science typically need an office, a computer, travel money and maybe a research assistant. I don’t need an fMRI or a spectrometer. Scientists, they need a lab, they need equipment, it’s very expensive stuff they need. It always looks to people that it’s lopsided, and it’s true. You’ll always have to spend more money on the STEM field because it costs more to do state of the artwork, education and research in STEM. That said, we built Oak Hall, which is all social sciences. We’re renovating Fine Arts, and most importantly, we built the faculty. We now have a world-class philosophy department because we put so much effort into that. We continue to hire faculty into the humanities. That’s the state of higher ed. STEM is always going to cost more, and it’s always going to be big-ticket items.

Lessing: Switching to a new topic, your contract expires in 2019. Depending on the new governor is going to be, you may or may not retain your position at the university. What would you say to this?

Herbst: I haven’t really thought about it. We have commencement, we have our legislative session, we have so much going on, I haven’t put much thought or talked to the board about it. But, I mean, anything’s possible.

Lessing: If you are not reappointed, what would you hope for the university?

Herbst: I think this is a great job. I can’t imagine that the people qualified for this job wouldn’t love it all here. I think we have a tremendous faculty and staff, a beautiful physical location, not just here, at the health center and the regional campuses, so whoever works here is really lucky, as I have been. It’s a very supportive place to me. I think all the presidents of the past and the future, they’d land in a really good spot.

Lessing: So you wouldn’t know if you’d particularly know your chances yet?

Herbst: No. I haven’t really given it any thought.

Lessing: Moving forward, what are your hopes for next year?

Herbst: We hope to build our faculty. We hope to get some major gifts and built our philanthropy and endowment. We’re looking right now for a partner in our clinical enterprise at the Health Center and make it financially viable. A good football, a good basketball, a good soccer season. Our greatest hope is to do the two things we’re supposed to do, which is educate students so you guys can go out and be successful and do what you want to do, and also keep doing the kind of research that have results that solve the world’s problems, which is what a research university is supposed to do. Curing disease, we have people working on the most difficult diseases to face mankind. Sustainability, renewable energy, human rights, the things we work on to be cutting edge in our fields. We want to be successful at those things.

Lessing: How do you hope to keep recruitment competitive, even with rising tuition?

Herbst: We try to stay with our peers in terms of our tuition and fees We will try to keep that in lien as much as we can, and like you mentioned before, fundraising and the Foundation and scholarships, that’s the way to keep UConn affordable, if you can’t do a backtrack ro freeze on tuition, which is not financially viable.

Lessing: A side question. There were two very controversial speakers on campus. A lot of people are wondering if UConn is ever going to censor, or control, the kind of speakers on campus, especially now that the new approval process.

Herbst: I think people will have to go through that process. I think it’s a fair process. We want to be a place of free speech. We want to have controversial speakers. We just don’t want it to get out of control or dangerous in any way. In terms of ideas, we can’t and we shouldn’t protect students from ideas they disagree with. I don’t think any of the processes are airtight. It’s a difficult time for America, and it’s a very divided country. Emotions are high. It will be reflected on college campuses.

Lessing: Many of the speakers invited on campus are on the more liberal side. Is there any particular reason more conservative speakers haven’t been invited on campus?

Herbst: We’re trying. We’re working on some big names for fall. we had, in the fall, we had Trent Lott. We want to have more people like that. We’ll continue work on that.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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