April 5, 2015 | last updated April 5, 2015 5:07 pm
Women In Business 2015

Herbst grows UConn's research-university credentials

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Susan Herbst, UConn president, shown with her mentor, Dr. Elihu Katz.

Who is your mentor and why?

I have had many mentors, administrative and academic, since I began as a college professor at Northwestern University. But if I had to choose one, it would be Dr. Elihu Katz, who teaches now at the University of Pennsylvania and the Hebrew University in Israel. He is one of the most important social scientists in the world, and he taught me how to approach social and political issues with powerful analytic frameworks. It is very difficult to decide on a topic for one's dissertation, which will eventually become (if all goes well!) a book or set of scholarly articles. This leads to a university professorship and a career in higher education. Elihu was an inspiration and taught me the basic theoretical approaches that I use in research and teaching to this day.

How do you mentor your staff?

I am fortunate to have a highly experienced group of colleagues at this point in my career, who serve as my "cabinet" at the University. People at this level of their careers — vice presidents — do not need mentoring of the sort that more junior professionals do. But of course I help them to operationalize my vision for the University, and support them as they do their jobs in areas from student affairs and athletics to facilities and research. I have been fortunate to attract excellent people who could go anywhere — to any public or private research university in the nation. And they need the support to act autonomously, imaginatively, and with power, in their domains, in addition to helping each other, as we run the university together as a team.

What advice could you offer to people thinking about being a mentor?

The key aspects of being a great mentor are honesty and support. You must be willing to have a "heart-to-heart" discussion — or maybe many such discussions — about their true strengths and weaknesses, so that they don't find themselves in the wrong profession or subfield. If they are in the appropriate field, you must enable them to know their skill set, learn how to grow it, and also how to articulate what they do well. They need to know themselves, and also be able to explain their real value to colleagues and employers alike.

University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst relishes being the first woman president in the school's 134-year history.

"It feels great and I think about it all the time," says Herbst, 52, who was hired in Dec. 2010 and arrived at UConn the following June.

Female students tell her they're glad to have a woman president and express interest in knowing more about obtaining leadership positions, she says.

"So I'm reminded about it all the time by our own students who are very much excited by that and I think inspired by that," Herbst says. "So I take it as a point of pride for the place and a real responsibility here."

Herbst is among a small class, though; women head about 14 percent of research universities like UConn, she says, and the percentage has been flat. The number of women leaders everywhere, including at universities, should better reflect women's share of the population, but it could take another generation or two, she says.

"I think it's still very hard for women who are raised to be nice and to not argue and to kind of go along and not make waves," Herbst says, adding that leaders in small or large organizations need to speak up, make the right and sometimes hard choices and not worry about being liked.

Important for leaders at any level, she says, is to "know what you don't know" and be careful who you hire and promote to fill those gaps, she says.

"I love to hire excellent people and then stay out of their way," says Herbst, whose administrative career was launched while serving as political science department chair at Northwestern University, where she worked from 1989 to 2003, before stints at Temple University, University at Albany-State University of New York and the University System of Georgia.

Herbst has strong leadership skills, according to Coleman Levy, a partner at Hartford law firm Hinckley Allen and chairman of the UConn Foundation board.

"She's a true leader and a visionary," Levy says. "And she's got a vision for the university of what it can and will be, and in the true sign of a great leader, she has surrounded herself with terrific people in the administration of the university."

Levy said Herbst is totally integrated in and with the university.

"Her skills are exceptional. … Susan does not tolerate fools. She's a great advocate of the university in all of its facets and academics are of an absolute top priority of hers," as evidenced by the increase in the number and quality of faculty. She's the right leader for UConn's aim to be among the country's top-tier public research universities, he says.

Herbst considers the addition of 200-plus faculty across all disciplines among her proudest accomplishments. She's targeted 300, but says state budget constraints will make that harder or slower to attain.

"Every new faculty member you bring, not only does it boost the amount of research that you do and your international reputation, but most important to us, we serve the students better, we reduce class sizes, which we have done … and we have more course offerings," she says.

"I think a university is all about great balance — and bringing new scholars, new faculty, new leaders to any university really enlivens it," she says, emphasizing the importance, too, of retaining talented people.

Herbst, who completed a three-year term on the American Council on Education board of directors in March, has a full plate overseeing UConn campuses and UConn Health and John Dempsey Hospital, with a combined $2 billion-plus operating budget, almost 10,000 faculty and staff, and 31,000-plus students.

She's also leading implementation of Next Generation Connecticut and Bioscience Connecticut, the former to expand educational opportunities, research and innovation in science, technology, engineering and math. The latter includes health center expansion, more research laboratories and building and increasing business incubators.

Herbst also is overseeing relocation of UConn's West Hartford campus to downtown Hartford by fall 2017, helping further revitalize the Capital City and link UConn with the city center's arts, science, library and entertainment attractions.

Herbst is proud, too, of UConn's No. 19 placement in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of best public universities. The school was No. 38 in 2000. Additionally, applications and SAT scores of incoming freshmen are rising. The improvements are a testament to the great work by many, said Herbst, who is married to Doug Hughes and has two children in college, Rebecca and Daniel.

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