A few months ago, we received some abrupt and rather surprising news regarding the resignation of the University of Connecticut’s last president, Dr. Thomas Katsouleas. Now, the UConn community is moving into a new semester under the leadership of a somewhat fresh face – Interim President Andrew Agwunobi. Currently, the university does not have a timeline in place to find a permanent replacement for Katsouleas, so there’s no saying exactly how long Agwunobi will be serving.
Agwunobi, who holds an MD from the University of Jos and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has been the CEO of UConn Health since 2014, and will continue to serve in that position alongside his interim presidency. He is also the first non-white person to serve as president of the university. So far we’ve heard a few things from him about what type of leader he is going to be and what he wants to prioritize during his presidency.
In a video posted on UConn’s YouTube channel, Agwunobi said he considers himself more of a “team leader” than a CEO or “head of everything” in his positions. When asked in the video about his priorities during his presidency, he included getting through the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening UConn to full capacity, working on a strategic plan for the future of UConn and following through with the infrastructure development on-campus in his answer. Later on, he also referred to his position as one of servitude, and said he wants to work with students, faculty, staff, donors and the Board of Trustees to make decisions that take UConn to the “right place” and include voices from all constituencies.
Given that Agwunobi is stepping in after a rather tumultuous and chaotic couple of years – both in the midst of a pandemic, and during a time where there is an increase in discussions surrounding racial justice, mental health and other social justice topics on campus – there are certainly a lot of decisions to be made. With Agwunobi’s mindset of serving the UConn community in a collaborative way, especially with students in mind, here are a few things that could be important for him to reflect on in the beginning of his term.
One of the most important parts of serving students is listening to their concerns. Especially for Agwunobi, who has not likely had much experience interacting with undergraduate students as past UConn presidents have, connecting with students in meaningful ways at the beginning of his term could be a good way to find out what issues mean the most to the student population – and by doing that he can be well-informed when making decisions that affect students. One way Katsouleas had done this during his term was by hosting “coffee hours’‘ where students could talk directly to him about things they wanted to see change on campus. While this avenue of communication allowed for some genuine discourse between administration and students, other methods that Katsouleas used to connect with students were less effective, such as his attempt at “involvement” in a protest where he skateboarded alongside a crowd of students participating in an international climate strike. The skateboard incident was generally regarded as a PR stunt that left many students involved in the strike frustrated and unheard. The “meaningful” part of meaningful connections is definitely important to note when it comes to communicating with students.
Another way that Agwunobi could achieve his mission to serve students at UConn is by addressing bias-related incidents on campus faster. For example, last semester UConn experienced an increase in antisemitic incidents on campus. Katsouleas was criticized for taking a long time to respond to these incidents and others during his term. Having a leader who stands by students affected by bias-related incidents when they happen, instead of taking a week or two to address them, would show students that the university truly does have a no-tolerance policy towards prejudice. Agwunobi himself emphasized the university’s no-tolerance policy in his speech at convocation this past weekend, but ultimately his responses to incidents on campus will be much more telling of this claim.
Finally, Agwunobi should reflect on the importance of following through on the goals he sets for his term. These goals can and should enact programs and policies that address the concerns of UConn students. If making attending UConn more affordable, increasing mental health support resources and addressing diversity and inclusion are what he says are going to be a part of his presidency, following through on those words with action is another way he can serve students better. Several initiatives that were started during Katsouleas’ term still need to be sought through: for example, the work being done with B Diaz and other student organizers to implement the Mental Health Care Act, that Katsouleas said would continue into Fall 2021. This initiative along with others, like finding funding to reinstate the Connecticut Commitment, the now “paused” program that offered free tuition to students with household incomes of less than $50,000, or reducing UConn’s greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 are all goals set by a previous administration that students are still waiting for action on.
Reflecting on the past should definitely be a part of the decisions our new president makes in his term. Agwunobi can take UConn in a number of different ways this year. We hope that his decisions will be well-informed by those of the past.