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November 1, 2021

Despite interim title, Agwunobi leading UConn like a permanent president

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Interim UConn President Dr. Andrew Agwunobi says he’s not approaching the job as a “caretaker” president.

UConn interim President Dr. Andrew Agwunobi says he’s not thinking much about whether his position will become permanent. And the university’s board isn’t thinking much about replacing him.

UConn’s Board of Trustees in May appointed UConn Health CEO Agwunobi as interim president, following former President Thomas Katsouleas’ sudden exit after serving in the position for just two years. About six months later, the board hasn’t started a search process for a permanent university head, and Agwunobi said he’s not approaching the job as someone about to be replaced.

“I’m not acting as a caretaker president,” Agwunobi said. “I am working with the board of trustees, the students, the deans, and everyone to move forward on all fronts.”

Top priorities include expanding UConn’s research and entrepreneurship funding and economic development efforts as Connecticut’s flagship university works through — hopefully — the end of a global pandemic that’s stymied operations for nearly two years.

Agwunobi is no neophyte when it comes to administrative leadership at UConn.

A physician who also earned an MBA at Stanford University, Agwunobi is also the CEO of UConn Health, a position he’s held since 2014.

As head of UConn Health, Agwunobi oversees UConn’s $1.2 billion academic health system, which has been dogged by financial problems over the years, particularly from burdensome unfunded liabilities. UConn Health includes a teaching hospital, faculty practice plan, medical and dental schools, research facilities, and an incubator facility/program for biotechnology startups.

When UConn trustees appointed him May 19 as interim president, they touted his leadership at UConn Health, with board Chairman Dan Toscano praising his efforts to create a financially viable institution amid COVID-19.

Agwunobi said he sees UConn as being largely past the pandemic. Some 11,000 residential students arrived on UConn’s main Storrs campus for the 2021 fall semester, and about 30,000 students are taking courses at UConn right now, the interim president said.

Additionally, financial data and projections presented to the board at the end of September are much brighter than the pandemic’s early days, when the university shuttered its campus to most residential students.

The $72 million in federal emergency funds UConn received buoyed the university enough to overcome a $107.8 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year, according to UConn documents. UConn intends to apply for $43.2 million in additional federal American Rescue Plan funds in fiscal 2022, which will enable the institution to end the fiscal year without a deficit.

Focus on research, entrepreneurship

State legislators in 2019 mandated that UConn expand entrepreneurship programs, and Katsouleas that year said he planned to double research funding over a 10-year period. Agwunobi said he’s very much on board with expanding research, but isn’t tying himself to a specific figure.

“I wouldn’t necessarily hang our hat on doubling — we might be able to do better than doubling,” Agwunobi said, pointing to a record-breaking $375 million in outside research funding from external sponsors in fiscal year 2021. “But I think what’s most important is that we significantly increase our research and do as much research as possible.”

To that end, his administration is encouraging UConn researchers to apply for federal and private grants, and is recruiting and working to retain researchers that have research grants, Agwunobi said.

The university’s startup incubators will also be a focal point in expanding innovation and entrepreneurship, he said. UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) is currently filled to capacity with more than 45 startups operating out of its Farmington offices.

Meanwhile, UConn’s Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation established the Stamford Startup Studio, a program on the school’s Stamford campus that trains students interested in entrepreneurship how to develop new products, while hopefully creating intellectual property like prototypes and patents.

A key point in expanding innovation and entrepreneurship training for students will be utilizing UConn’s ties to businesses large and small, Agwunobi said. Expanding innovation efforts dovetails with economic development, he said.

“We have a lot of relationships,” Agwunobi said. “Innovation is a big part of the economic development pillar of our strategic plan, so we’ll be working a lot on that.”

Agwunobi also sees UConn’s urban campuses in Stamford and Hartford as possible drivers of economic development programs.

“The Hartford campus is a really special campus,” Agwunobi said. “Its proximity to the capitol, the programs that it has there — both the social work programs as well as the public policy programs — and many other things are done at Hartford… and [the city] really values the Hartford campus.”

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