High stakes for next leader
Whoever becomes the next governor will not only be expected to fix the state’s fiscal mess but also weigh in on the next president of its flagship university.
While some might say solving the economy is tougher, others maintain the tasks are nearly equal — and intertwined.
“Hiring a flagship university president is a big deal,” said Terry Hartle, a vice president at the American Council on Education. “The stakes are high.”
Hartle, as well as a number of the state’s gubernatorial candidates, say the University of Connecticut can and should play a role in the state’s economic recovery.
Although it will be up to the UConn board of trustees to make the final call, the board is expected to consult with the outgoing and incoming governor, as the ex-officio head of the board of trustees, in keeping with past practice.
Those eager to be governor relish the thought of chiming in.
“The person we hire (as UConn president) has to recognize the state of Connecticut is not an unlimited spigot of cash,” said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor.
“UConn is important.,” said Ned Lamont, the Democratic-endorsed candidate. “I know how important the right university president can be toward economic development and job creation. ... I think we could be doing better.”
Susan Herbst, UConn’s 15th president and the first woman to hold the job, announced she will leave in July 2019 after serving eight years.
“Stepping down was not an easy decision for me by any means,” Herbst said. “But a university is forever, and each of us knows that we are only its temporary caretakers and champions. None of us are indispensable and the right time for a change always arrives eventually.”
She will not leave the university, but rather shift roles, becoming a professor of political science at UConn Stamford once she steps down as president.
Her tenure coincides with that of departing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who in 2010 tasked her with building UConn’s academic strength, fueling economic growth and elevating its place in American higher education.
Despite diminished state financial support, Herbst said she accomplished the task.
Programs in bio-science, business and engineering have expanded and attracted business partnerships, incubation startups and investments.
UConn enrollment, the number of tenured faculty and the endowment have grown. Research dollars remain strong and the university’s national prominence has risen.
In 2010, the year before Herbst arrived, UConn was ranked 26th among public research universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. It is now 18th best out of 132 institutions nationwide.
“Susan Herbst has been a tremendously effective leader for this university,” UConn Board Chairman Thomas Kruger said.
Lawrence D. McHugh, who served as board chairman from 2009 through 2017, called Herbst a tough act to follow.
Depends on who you ask
Tim Herbst, a former Trumbull first selectman and Republican candidate for governor, has been highly critical of the UConn president, calling her tenure one marked by budget mismanagement and tinged by politics.
“I do feel her commitment to expanding UConn’s vision beyond countries’ borders was noble. I do believe she cares about students,” Tim Herbst said. “But I am bothered by the politics that injected itself into her tenure on more than one occasion.”
Herbst was upset when President Susan Herbst — the two are not related — stood with Malloy on the Avery Point campus to “attack a Republican senator over (potential) budget cuts” in 2017. He said he was irked that UConn declared itself a sanctuary campus for undocumented students and when the university cut ties with a radio station that had conservative broadcasts.
If elected governor, Tim Herbst said he would not only want to weigh in on the selection of the next UConn president but replace the UConn board with members who understand that taxpayers wallets are not bottomless pits.
He said he has candidates for president in mind, but won’t say who they are.
Guy Smith, a Greenwich executive who plans to primary as a Democrat, said he wouldn’t mind if the next UConn president came from within the state.
“We need an educator and a researcher, someone who can raise money and work with the Legislature and governor,” Smith said.
The right candidate, Smith said, might harness the university’s intellectual capital to help solve the state’s fiscal issues.
Steve Obsitnik, a Republican gubernatorial candidate for governor from Westport, said he wants a leader who is focused on growing the state’s workforce.
“UConn needs a strong leader with not only excellent academic credentials, but who will collaborate with the public and private sector to help keep its many talented graduates in Connecticut,” Obsitnik said.
Lamont, meanwhile, sees UConn as key to the state’s economic recovery and development.
He likes the job President Susan Herbst has done but expects her successor to reach out even further to business leaders in the state, expand apprenticeship programs and more deliberately line up academic offerings with available jobs.
Like most gubernatorial candidates, Lamont says UConn costs too much.
He wants the state to do more to nurture student loan forgiveness programs for graduates who go into teaching or other high demand jobs in the state.
Boughton and Tim Herbst suggest UConn should lower its expenses by cutting high administrative costs, starting with the president’s compensation package.
Boughton said he doesn’t understand how someone whose compensation tops $800,000 can have two residences, a car and a driver.
Stephanie Reitz, a university spokeswoman, said by contract the president must live in the presidential residence in Storrs. The UConn Foundation owns a house in Hartford that Susan Herbst is expected to use for fundraising events and alumni engagements.
Her contract offers a state vehicle and driver or a $15,000 vehicle allowance funded by the UConn Foundation. She took the allowance and has her own car, Reitz said.
Hartle, of ACE, called Herbst’s compensation package comparable to presidents at other public universities.
What a prospective university president will want
Hartle said the job will attract a strong pool of candidates despite the state’s continued fiscal woes.
“States are cutting support everywhere,” Hartle said. “UConn is a first-rate research university with a very good story to tell.”
As much as gubernatorial hopefuls will be eyeing prospective UConn presidents, any serious candidate for the university president will be watching the governor’s race, Hartle said.
“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “Any serious candidate for a public university presidency will ask carefully about the political context of the state government where the university is located. If not, don’t hire them.”