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President Kaplan on Housing, Gerber Hall, and More (Q&A)

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University of New Haven President Steven H. Kaplan sat down with the Charger Bulletin to talk about some of the major issues surrounding the campus and how he views the past school year.

Q: What has been your proudest moment at the University for this school year?
A: For this school year, I would say the most exciting moment was the commitment of Sam and Lois Bergami for their very transformational gift for the science and learning center.

Q: What is one thing you wish you could have done this year that you will try to accomplish next year?
A: I think we learned a lot from the situation we have right now with freshman and sophomores in particular deciding that they would prefer to live off campus. I think we learned more than anything else that we gather a lot of information about how we can meet students’ needs, but we don’t utilize that information at thoroughly as I think we should. We’d heard grumblings about the quality of the food and services that Sodexo was providing for some students, and I don’t think we responded as aggressively as we probably should. We have a policy that if you live in campus housing that you have to have a meal plan. While I’m not saying we’re going to change that, I think we need to consider that more closely than we have in the past. We ask students very often what they think and I think we’re really listening and taking their concerns seriously, I don’t think we act as quickly and as deliberately as we should.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing that needs to be improved at the University?
A: We use a National Survey of Student Engagement, and it tells us that we do some things very well but that we need to improve on other things. One of the key ones is that being far more engaging of students in and out of the classroom than we are, especially in the classroom, and I think there’s a lot that still needs to be done there.

Q: What is something you’ve learned from hosting the open forums on campus?
A: What I’ve learned from hosting the open forums on campus is a multitude of things. What I think I’ve learned more than anything else is how difficult it is for many, if not all of us, to have these discussions. While I knew that was the case, I don’t think I had understood the depth of how difficult it is, which tells me that the discussions are even more important than I thought – and I thought they were quite important. When something is that difficult, it means there is something wrong, and I think we all learned a lesson that there is a lot under the surface that needs to be brought to the surface so we can recognize it. And not just around diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, but also on political point of views, which I think is very healthy.

Q: Are there any other ways you plan to make yourself more accessible to the student body?
A: Yes and no. Yes I would like to be accessible as students would like me to be, and no, I have no systematic way for doing that. I actually feel that students access to the president shouldn’t be forced. I think students need to tell me when they want to meet and why they want to meet, and then I can meet with them. The truth is, I spend most of my lunches with donors, and I think that’s in the best interest of the students that I do so. I’m happy to meet with students whenever there is an issue they want to discuss with me, so I think I’m as accessible as I can be. What I would like to see is more student groups asking me.

Q: Some conversation is going around about changing the way we do housing selection, specifically the lottery system. Do you know if this is being looked at?
A: It is absolutely being looked at and needs to be looked at. About two years ago, the USGA leadership took it upon themselves to look at this issue and I encouraged them to do so, and really nothing came of it. But I encouraged them back them, and now we’re doing it. We’re bringing in a firm in the next few weeks to talk to students, we’re going to bring in part of nationally recognized housing programs to try and find alternatives to the lottery. I think it creates a lot of anxiety; it has benefits and has a rationale, but it’s part of the problem we have right now with why students are choosing to live off campus.

Q: Why did you choose Murray Gerber and why did you choose to rename Botwinik Hall?
A: The names on quite a few buildings on this campus are honorific, and an honorific naming is usually, on most facilities not in perpetuity, but short term recognition of someone for something they did for the university. Norm Botwinik was the chairman of the Board [of Governors] and when he stepped down not long after that, they were opening that facility and to recognize his years of service, his name was put on there to thank him. It wasn’t part of a gift – neither was Bixler Hall. Usually when someone’s name is put on a building permanently, as is the case with a number of buildings like Bergami Hall, Celentano, and now Gerber Hall, it’s usually the combination of a gift to do so and of someone who we feel is a worthy representative of the values of the institution and has supported those values. In the case of Murray Gerber, he served on the Board for a number years, was a very effective board member, and he’s passionate about the institution. He’s been off the Board for 12 years I think but from what I can see, he never misses a football game. He obviously cares deeply about students and student life here and I think it’s very fitting, and he’s made a significant gift to the institution for the naming.

Q: Can you tell us any plans about the new building being built?
A: The building has been designed, and we’re going with the designs we have. It contains a very large maker-space, a series of really creative, collaborative classrooms, a large, open atrium for student life programming and for academic life programming. Right now, we’re in the final phase of trying to raise another $5-6 million so that the building will be funded almost entirely by gifts. At the [scholarship] ball, I’m hoping we raise another $1-2 million for the building. In the last month, I’ve personally raised probably $3.5 million, so we’re getting there. The goal would be to move into the final design phase in September, so the ground breaking would be in the spring and then a year of construction.

Q: One student asked, why is there a teapot in the school seal/logo?
A: It’s not a teapot, it’s a lamp of wisdom and knowledge, but good question.

Q: Can you tell us your middle name?
A: My middle name is Howard, after my father’s father.

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President Kaplan on Housing, Gerber Hall, and More (Q&A)