Nearly three years ago, Gov. Ned Lamont introduced Thomas Katsouleas, the University of Virginia’s executive vice president, as the 16th president of the University of Connecticut. Katsouleas was well-regarded for his earlier innovative success as an engineering dean at Duke University, as he transformed his department from a “repository of knowledge” to a “knowledge creation engine.” By nearly all accounts, he was a great hire.
For a while, UConn’s future looked bright in Katsouleas’ hands. The man affectionately known as “TomKat” proved to be an accessible figure, even personally assisting students on move-in weekend. Though his progressive vision for UConn was bold, Katsouleas walked the walk by vowing to donate a portion of his own salary to the Connecticut Commitment, an initiative which the UConn Board of Trustees opposed. Katsouleas’ questionable handling of an ugly racial incident in October 2019 proved a mere bump in the road, as he remained popular with the student body.
But of course, all good things must come to an end, and the end of Katsouleas’ tenure was particularly unfortunate. Financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic strained his already-rocky relationship with Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Toscano. Particularly, Toscano and the other trustees objected to Katsouleas’ willingness to act openly instead of behind closed doors — as is trustee tradition. This tension catalyzed Katsolueas’ resignation last spring, though he remained at UConn as a tenured engineering professor.
News of Katsouleas’ resignation broke in May and became effective on June 30, 2021. Now less than seven months later, we have already burned through the tenure of Interim President Andrew Agwunobi, the now-former CEO of UConn Health. In an email to the UConn community last Friday, Jan. 14, Agwunobi announced his own resignation. Effective Feb. 21, he will become the CEO of Humana, a Louisville-based health insurance company.
Until now, I’ve neglected to mention Agwunobi’s name because his tenure was hardly notable. He juggled the simultaneous responsibilities of managing UConn Health during a pandemic while leading the university through its most “normal” academic stretch since 2019 — and then promptly left when COVID-19 reemerged to disrupt life on campus.
Let me be clear: I do not fault Agwunobi in any way for accepting a seven-figure position in the private sector — his expertise in the health field speaks for itself. Rather, it is the timing of Agwunobi’s departure that arouses my suspicion.
First and foremost, Agwunobi was supposed to be a strong transitional candidate who could lead UConn through the 2021-22 academic year, out of the pandemic, and then step aside when the Board of Trustees selected a more permanent replacement.
Instead, the 2021-22 academic year is only half-over, the pandemic is still impacting campus life and the Board of Trustees has not selected any permanent replacement. Agwunobi’s temporary replacement, UConn Vice President for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Radenka Maric, will likely serve an even shorter term than her predecessor.
I cannot help but think back to Toscano calling Agwunobi “a lock of stability for UConn” when the latter’s term began last summer. If “stability” means blindsiding your university community four days before a new semester begins, then congratulations to Toscano; he called it! But because it obviously doesn’t, his statement has aged about as well as Shaq on the Celtics.
Furthermore, the Agwunobi departure unfortunately continues UConn’s recent pattern of making poor public relations announcements. I don’t profess to be an expert in this field, but I believe strongly in the words of my Opinion section colleague, Sam Zelin, who on Jan. 6 wrote a piece simply titled, “UConn seriously needs to improve its public relations.”
In his article, Zelin cited the Dec. 30, 2021 fiasco in which UConn announced the first two weeks of this semester would be conducted virtually. This announcement came after the news had already been leaked to UConn Today and two weeks after an email from the Dean of Students told everyone they’d be “coming back in January.”
So exactly two weeks later, Agwunobi and the UConn administration have more big news to share. Their chosen method? Why, of course, telling the students that their current president will be jetting off to Kentucky while they adjust to arguably the most uncertain semester in two years. Such a time calls for real leadership, not a transition of power.
While Agwunobi’s departure is not a TomKat-level surprise, it should be noted that seven-figure CEO positions do not become available overnight. When hiring corporate executives, there are generally background checks of the applicant, at least one interview and a board of directors’ vote. The thousands of other UConn students and I would have appreciated at least a heads-up that our president was considering leaving, as his use of the phrase “careful consideration” in the email to students suggests his departure was in the works for some time.
Meanwhile, Toscano, the other trustees and the rest of UConn’s administration have some serious soul-searching to do. They must stop appointing yes-men to take the fall for their blunders, and seek out a new leader with the bold visions of Katsouleas to move this university forward.
When Maric becomes UConn’s interim president on Feb. 1 (Agwunobi will remain at UConn for her first three weeks), she will be our third leader in less than one year. By comparison, the failed state of Afghanistan — which endured a violent revolution and became a global embarrassment for President Joe Biden last August — has still recognized only two leaders during this period.
The perpetual anarchy created by administrative incompetence is an embarrassment to all UConn students, and moving forward, such incompetence must be corrected at many levels.
In the words of Taylor Swift: “I can’t make ‘em stay.”