The Daily Campus sat down with University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas yesterday to talk about his plans for UConn and his impressions so far.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Daily Campus: How has adjusting to UConn been over the last few months?
President Thomas Katsouleas: Well, it’s been great to be here. It’s an exciting place, and every day and every week I learn new things about the university that are excellent, that excite me and on which we can build.
I don’t know why everybody says the weather is bad in Connecticut; I think it’s terrific.
The biggest challenge is it’s a large, complex university, so I’m drinking from the fire hose quite a lot and there are so many people to meet, and that’s been exciting.
DC: Is there anything that’s stood out about UConn’s culture?
TK: The commitment to the mission has been pretty universal and kind of surprising how deeply people care about that, about providing affordable and excellent education and making it broadly accessible, and being a resource for the state.
The state has treated this university well over a couple decades and it’s a wonderful place and people are anxious to be a source of giving back to the state in its time of financial need.
DC: Your background is very much in STEM, how do you plan to support UConn’s humanities departments?
TK: I’m a strong believer that what a broad academic context university can bring to society is that ability to look at all three dimensions of any societal need and, in fact, any innovation and I think humanities are essential to that.
In an age of commoditized knowledge, humanities and fine arts, which are about cultivating creativity and ideas, that’s where the value is in today’s society. So it is a critically important part of our landscape and I’m so glad we have strong programs in those areas.
DC: How do you think UConn is doing right now in terms of balancing STEM with humanities, business and the arts?
TK: I think it’s pretty well in balance right now. There’s always some natural tension, you want to have a university that has broad context which offers students an array of choices to pursue, so they can follow their passion. At the same time, there’s that tension that if students decide in large numbers to pursue one particular area, how do you support that area and then support the broad context that you value? So those are the things that are in tension and I think we’re in pretty good balance right now. The students here are pursuing broad disciplinary majors and cross-disciplinary majors and minors and we’re offering a broad array to meet those needs. But these things change over time and we need to adapt to support both those values at the same time.
DC: What do you see as UConn’s biggest challenge going forward?
TK: It’s easy for anyone in a senior administrative role to use the sort of cop out answer, it’s always financial, so that’s kind of boring. And since I’m an engineer, I tend to view it as every problem we solve has constraints and specs and the financial constraints are just part of it. I see tremendous opportunities for us to grow our mission. There’s no one particular challenge more than the others, it’s really up to us.
DC: You mentioned that you see a lot of possibilities for UConn to expand, can you elaborate upon some of those avenues?
TK: First of all to double research and scholarship; and I say scholarship because it’s not just about funded research. It’s across the board, and I think this is something that we do through investing in our current faculty and recruiting new faculty, so bringing a diverse and distinguished faculty to the university to benefit our students. Essentially, to learn from those who are creating new knowledge rather than simply passing on the knowledge of others. I think that’s the value proposition of a research university coming to get the inspiration and insight and wisdom that comes from superstar faculty, rock-star faculty like that.
DC: How do you see UConn’s relationship with the state panning out over the next couple years?
TK: I think the state is fiscally constrained more than it has been in the past, so what I’ve talked to the governor about is the need to keep UConn at sea level with state support. I said, “I can work as the new president to generate new revenue, but I can’t start underwater … And I think that he was supportive of that and, in fact, he showed that through his actions and his budget requests for this year. So I think increasingly, we’re going to rely on philanthropy and other forms of revenue generation, but the state is still our biggest partner and benefactor, so I look forward to a good working relationship with the state.
DC: You’ve been praised for your openness with students, as seen through events like your coffee hours at the Benton. Why has it been important for you to cultivate this relationship with the UConn student body?
TK: I think it’s important for a president to be the president of the entire university, and that means being accessible to the entire university. And I also think I can’t do the job as well if I don’t hear from people and understand how things are going. And the coffee hours are just one more avenue for getting that information. I find it really valuable, and also, I find it pretty uplifting, actually. Last Friday, I had a coffee hour at the Benton. I had a group of students lined up to see me ... It just was, one after another.
I had an office hour at the Hartford campus. And in the last 10 minutes, I got invited to jump out of an airplane with the skydiving team. I don’t care if they win gold medals in competitions, I’m not doing that [laughs]. And I got invited to be dunked in a dunk tank and play volleyball in the mud in the winter. So if I survive the winter, it will be a miracle. A lot of good invitations there.
DC: How have your office hours at the regional campuses been?
TK: They’ve been great. When you go to Hartford, go to Waterbury, you really get the sense of what education means to the students and the opportunity that it brought to them that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. There’s a sense of appreciation that is really palpable and uplifting. But they are very engaged in their communities, in terms of projects from their classes in the communities. They think that the kind of things they’re doing there, that the regional campus could be the prototypes for Storrs. So I’m very excited, and I think that they have important roles to play, and there’s as much we can learn from them. It’s been really good.
[The Stamford campus] is like a rocket ship in terms of its growth, and the students are really engaged. They’re ... getting career opportunities exactly in the area they’re studying and that they’re interested in, and that combined their passion for the arts and technology.
I toured the dorms and I asked the students what they thought of the dorms at Stamford, and they’re absolutely luxurious. And I got the shrug I get from my high school kids, which is, ‘Yeah, they’re okay.’ We were thinking we need to have all the Stamford residents spend a night at Storrs first, then go to Stamford.
DC: Clearly it sounds like you really value students’ feedback, but how do you plan to ensure that your administration follows up on what these students want, especially in light of the large-scale climate strike taking place [today]?
TK: Needless to say, when they march on the office, they’re going to find an open door and I’m going to be interested in the list that they bring to me and we’re going to follow-up and see through a couple of things. I’ll talk to them tomorrow about it, but they have some ideas on how we can follow-up and consider carefully whatever it is they bring to me.
DC: How would you characterize your personal philosophy of leading UConn?
TK: I hope it’s consultative and team-building. I view academic leadership as kind of leading an all-volunteer army. You really don’t tell people what to do, but it’s the power of big ideas and backed by rhetoric to inspire and motivate people to do great things.
There’s so much talent here, I liken it to a Ferrari. There’s so much horsepower under the hood, my role is just to steer it a little bit and give it gas and let it go. That’s the approach that I’m taking. I think over the course of the year, as we tackle these formative questions, the answers will be unique to UConn and the answers will come from the community, not from me, and they will be based on what is special about our strengths and our desires. I’m convinced that [our plan for the university] will be both transformative and leading, but also distinctive – a blank plan that you would recognize as UConn’s and UConn’s alone.
DC: Is there anything else that you want our readers to know?
TK: I want to thank you for the warm welcome I’ve received from everyone; from Jonathan, to the staff in facilities, to the health system, to the students. It’s been really overwhelming, and I’m humbled and honored to be your president and I will work hard every day to fulfill that trust.