UConn president Susan Herbst aims to make Connecticut's flagship university a more powerful engine for economic growth

By Bill DeRosa

Following an intensive six-month search and a review of more than 100 applications, Susan Herbst was named the University of Connecticut's 15th president in December 2010. The first woman ever to occupy that position, she arrived on campus in July and was officially inaugurated on Sept. 16.

From 2007 to 2010, Herbst served as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia. In that role, she oversaw the academic missions of the state's 35 public universities, including Georgia Tech, where she held a faculty appointment as professor of public policy.

In an interview with the Hartford Courant, Herbst described Georgia Tech as "a powerhouse for economic development for the state" and acknowledged that in the last 10 to 15 years, universities have increasingly become "regional economic engines."

To maximize UConn's economic and job-creation potential, Herbst established the new position of vice president for economic development, which reports directly to her and is responsible for advancing the university's collaboration with industry and ability to bring new technology and research breakthroughs to market. The move, according to UConn, signals the importance of economic development at the university.

Recently, Herbst talked to CBIA News about her plans for expanding UConn's role in Connecticut's economic future.

What is your strategic vision for UConn? How would you define success five years from now?

UConn is one of the best universities in the nation today, particularly after the last two decades of incredible investment by the state of Connecticut. But that hardly means we're going to stop here and call it a day.

With tenacity and the right resources, UConn has the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as the University of Michigan or Berkeley, two of the great powerhouses of public higher education.

That's UConn's aspiration and our collective vision for the university. And there is absolutely no mystery as to how we get there; there is no backdoor method or sleight of hand that will earn us that place. We will do it by drawing top-tier researchers, bringing in major public and private investment, and attracting some of the best students in Connecticut and the nation.

We can measure success five years from now by looking at each of these indicators: Have we expanded our research portfolio? Have we maximized public and philanthropic dollars? Are our students as successful as they've ever been? The answer has to be yes for all of the above. That will pay major dividends not only for UConn but for all of Connecticut.

What are the main challenges to realizing that vision?

Our challenges are actually not all that different from those of other major public research universities or, for that matter, private industry. The first is simply competition. We are constantly fighting to do everything we can to hire outstanding faculty researchers, bring in investment, and attract great students: and so is every other comparable university.

To effectively compete in this environment, we can't be shy about investing in people and resources. It's like any other marketplace; great research faculty need reasons to come here, just like an outstanding business leader needs a reason to choose Aetna over another company who wants to hire him or her. Students need a reason to choose UConn, just like Boeing needs a good reason to pick Pratt to make engines for an aircraft.

We need to be exceptional and have what people are looking for. Doing this as effectively as we can in tough economic times is the second great challenge we face in realizing our vision, but almost every other big public university is facing the same thing.

We understand that Georgia Tech has been very successful in building partnerships with business. What role do you see for UConn in advancing the commercialization of intellectual property and partnering with the private sector?

UConn has been ramping up this effort in recent years, but we're going to do much, much more. Thanks to Governor Malloy, Senator Williams, and the legislature, the BioScience Connecticut initiative, to be located at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, and the Tech Park, to be located in Storrs, are extraordinary investments in UConn. They will have the effect of creating jobs across the spectrum both in the near term and long term and will be a new chapter in UConn's relationship with the private sector.

They will enable us to become one of the nation's leaders when it comes to technology commercialization and business incubation. This will hold enormous benefits for Connecticut's economy, scientific research, education, and private industry.

We've had different, loosely intertwined economic development efforts going on around the university, but what we need is one person whose job it is to lead and manage our portfolio and relations with the private sector.

To address that, we're in the process of searching for a new vice president for economic development, who will be the person charged with tying these efforts together and working closely with industry and the other economic development offices across the state to move us forward. This will make an important difference in our relationship with industry and in strengthening our economic development efforts.

Given the state's investment in the UConn Health Center, what is your vision for the Health Center and its contribution to economic development?

Creating an intersection between higher education, medicine, scientific research, and industry is what will drive economic development in Connecticut. That is the backbone of the BioScience Connecticut initiative, and it will create a magnet for outside investment.

We will be a national leader in this field. You'll see thousands of jobs created, whether in construction at the front end or in research down the road.

At the same time, the Health Center is the only public teaching hospital and research facility in the state, and we will not only expand the size of our medical and dental schools to graduate more excellent students, but we will continue to provide the highest quality care for our patients.

University-business partnerships are often built around engineering, biosciences, and other technological disciplines. What opportunities might there be for UConn's business school and law school to be integrated into economic development activities?

I'm glad you mention this, because I hadn't yet. Our economic development efforts are by no means confined only to the sciences. At the law school in Hartford, we have the Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, which is designed to aid businesspeople, inventors, and entrepreneurs in getting their companies or products off the ground by helping them jump through the legal hoops in the patent process, for example.

At the business school, we have the Sustainable Community Outreach and Public Engagement (SCOPE) Learning Accelerator, which allows cross-disciplinary teams of students to work directly with companies on issues of innovation. Economic development opportunities can be found across the spectrum.

Traditionally, one of Connecticut's key competitive advantages has been its well-educated, highly skilled workforce. How do you see the university enhancing that competitive edge?

I don't just see the university as enhancing it, I see UConn as being a major driver behind it.

The university draws in hundreds of millions of dollars to the state of Connecticut now and produces thousands of jobs. We are graduating more students than ever, and they are better prepared than ever. In 2001, we graduated fewer than 4,700 students; this past year we graduated more than 7,100: an increase of more than 50% in a decade.

Bringing high-quality students to UConn and graduating future generations of engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, pharmacists, teachers, and social scientists: to name a few: contributes enormously to the state. We have more than 200,000 living alumni and almost 120,000 of them reside in Connecticut. They are and will continue to be a major cornerstone of our educated, high-skill workforce.

According to a 2007 report from the University of New Hampshire, Connecticut experienced a 30% decline in population among people ages 25-34 between 1990 and 2004: the steepest drop in that age group of any state in the country. What programs can be put into place to help keep UConn grads in Connecticut?

It's probably less a question of programs than it is making sure we have what it takes to draw younger people to Connecticut and keep them here.

UConn draws students by being a great university. Together, we can help keep them in Connecticut after they graduate by doing everything we can to meet one of their greatest needs: good jobs. So when we talk about economic development, graduating highly-skilled workers, and creating strong partnerships with industry, the natural outgrowth of that is good jobs in the state of Connecticut.

It's also about our communities. If someone is determined to live in a loft in Brooklyn and work on Madison Avenue, we're not going to compete with that. But we can work to improve our cities and make sure they are attractive places to live for younger people or people who are coming back to Connecticut.

This is a great state, with beautiful communities and a lot of culture. It's a great place to live. If we can do everything we can to ensure there are plenty of opportunities for highly educated people to work and live here, they will.

How can the business community become a better advocate for UConn?

Talk to us, tell us what you need, and don't hesitate to share with others the benefits your business derives from UConn, whether it's our graduates, programs, or research.

We currently have many successful partnerships with industry that we can all brag about, and it's up to all of us to spread the word. See what we have to offer and take advantage of it.

Part of the charge for the new economic development position is to create and implement plans for entrepreneurship, industry collaboration, technology commercialization, and technology-based economic development at the university. The person in that position will also identify specific gaps in university programs based on industry demands and work to fill them so that we can build research expertise in areas that industry needs.

This begins with good communication between us. Let's make sure we have a good relationship, are being useful to one another, then communicate that to the state and others in industry.

Contact Susan Herbst at president@uconn.edu.

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at bill.derosa@cbia.com.