Tips From The Top: One On One With Steven Kaplan, President of the University of New Haven

I spoke to Steven Kaplan, President of the University of New Haven, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people?

Steven: When I go on vacation, I don’t read email, and I try not to work. That would surprise a lot of people who know what a workaholic I am. Any chance I have, I spend time with one of my two young grandsons. I did this early today, and as I sat there, all I could think of is how much they live in the moment and how much I need to and don’t.

Adam: How did you get here? ​ ​What failures, setbacks, or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Steven: When I was 11 or 12, I was buying stocks with money I made from a paper route. My first investment was Holiday Inn, which back then no one had ever heard of, and it did quite well. At 21, I took a leave of absence from UCLA to move to San Francisco. I lived in an apartment right under Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, with views of the Bay. I was playing the stock market and making a lot of money. My goal was to become a mega-millionaire and to be involved in business. Then I came down with acute peritonitis and spent almost a month in a hospital. It was the second time in my life that I almost died.  The first was from an accident when I was eight. While I was in the hospital, my best friend came to visit me and gave me a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I think he was worried about my death and redemption. When I recovered, I realized that I was much more interested in books and ideas than in making money. I eventually became a professor of literature. I knew then that helping other people and improving the world was a lot more important to me than accumulating wealth.

Adam: How have you been able to boost enrollment numbers so dramatically at the University of New Haven?

Steven: I believe that it is our focus on “customer service,” especially during the recruitment process. Even in those early days, when we didn’t have the resources and we couldn’t afford to invest in infrastructure or even faculty, this was where we put our considerable energies — into making sure that prospective students and their families felt welcome and attended to when they came to campus. No one came close to us in this regard, and I think few still do.

I have a favorite story about this. During my third or fourth year as president, I spoke at our summer orientation. A woman in the front row said she was from New Haven but had never heard much about the University until recently. She noted that we were growing dramatically, appearing to be at capacity in the classrooms and residence halls. “What changed?” she asked. It was pouring rain that day, and I asked her if she had seen someone when she drove up, probably in the middle of traffic, guiding cars onto the campus. “Yes,” she said. I told her that was our vice president for enrollment. Then I asked her how many people had helped her get to the auditorium in the rain. She thought for a second and answered, “five.”

There were people with umbrellas when she got out of the car, people who made sure she found her seat, people who asked her what they could do for her. Now, when I ask students why they chose the University of New Haven, in addition to the faculty or an area of study, almost without exception they say because of the way they were treated during the recruitment process.

Adam: What are the most important trends shaping higher education? What should students and parents understand? What should entrepreneurs understand?

Steven: By far, the biggest challenge facing us — and this doesn’t just apply to the University of New Haven but to all of us in higher education — is that the students have changed and institutions haven’t. This generation of students is facing enormous uncertainty and unpredictability as they look at the political, social, scientific, and technological changes that are taking place. These shifts are happening so fast and at a rate of speed that none of us could have foreseen. But it is up to us — the leaders in higher education — to make sure that we think creatively, embrace change, and work collaboratively to meet the needs of our students.

The challenge facing parents and students is understanding that the university they should be seeking and the education being offered will soon look much different than it does right now. I’m hoping that parents, in particular, understand that the traditional university, as we know it today, will soon be outdated. Just like taxi drivers didn’t anticipate Uber and the hotel industry didn’t understand what Airbnb was going to mean to them, higher education right now is not paying enough attention to the fact that another Amazon-like entity is going to suddenly emerge, and we risk being too late to effectively respond.

Adam: What are your key goals for the University in the next five years, and what is instrumental to your ability to lead your team to reach those goals?

Steven: On a curricular level, since launching a new School of Health Sciences last year, we are expanding our health science offerings even further while continuing to expand our impact and reach in the areas of cybersecurity, big data, and artificial intelligence. In addition, we’re building the new Bergami Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation, where students will be able to work across disciplines, classrooms, and colleges. In many ways, it’s really an incubator for what we need to do across the entire University. We need to start breaking out of majors. We need students to help us build the curriculum, as opposed to designing it and imposing it on them. When I was in college 40 years ago, the new buzzword was interdisciplinary education. We still talk about it, but we are not doing enough of it in higher education. We have to become so organically interdisciplinary that students are no longer defined by their major or area of concentration but by the competencies they’re developing:  their communication and leadership skills and their ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Steven: Vision, boldness, determination, a bit of craziness, and a willingness to do the right thing even when it’s not popular. I always joke that I’m a benevolent dictator, but I also mean that to some extent. As a leader, you’ve got to be willing to do what you know needs to be done. It’s not a popularity contest, and it’s not about opinion polls. It isn’t spontaneous decision-making, either. It’s very thoughtful, deliberate, research-based decision-making. I believe in shared governance, and I believe in faculty participating in decision-making. But to me, what defines leadership is when someone is willing to do something even if it’s not popular —maybe even without consensus — and that means taking the risk that people might not like what you are doing but will, hopefully, be pleased with the outcome.

Q: Who were the greatest leaders you’ve been around, and what did you learn from them?

Steven: I was very close to my father. When he was dying, he turned to me and said, “I have not been a very good role model for you.” To which I responded, “Oh, but you have.  I’ve learned from your mistakes.” My father was a salesman, but as one of his sons says about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he was not a leader of men. My father was a fairly passive person. I could be very critical of him for the way he led his personal and professional life, but he was an incredibly fine human being. He was a salesman, yet he never sold people anything unless he was convinced that the product would improve their lives. I learned from my father that, ultimately, leadership is about being a decent human being. For that reason, I’ve read Don Quixote in probably ten of the 15 years I’ve been at the University of New Haven. Don Quixote was not the great hero or leader he wanted to be, but he was an incredibly fine human being. And I think, ultimately, role models for leadership should be people who help you cultivate your humanity.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Steven: We should all be mentoring and supporting the next generation of leaders and making sure that, while we’re guiding and supporting them, we know when to get out of their way.

Adam: What is the best single piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Steven: Every time I took the Underground in London, getting on and getting off, there was a sign that said: Mind the Gap. I move very fast, but I always watch where I am going.  

Adam: What are your hobbies, and how have they shaped you?

Stephen: I walk every day of the year. I swim as often as I can. I love mountain climbing.  I’ve gone up Kilimanjaro, and I recently hiked the Andes. Being in the high mountains is like being on another planet. One can look down on one’s life and gain perspective.  And, for someone with vertigo, looking down is not always easy. I love traveling because it gives me the chance to keep learning new things and time to reflect on all of the things I am learning in life.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing, and leading teams? And, how can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Steven: I try to let my team members know that I’m a human being — that, like them, I’m fallible. And, that I care deeply about them as people. Some build teams through force, intimidation, and fear. I think a strong leader needs to be determined and must motivate and inspire people, continually pushing them to achieve more than they ever thought they could. But I think you have to do so from a position of your own humanity.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Steven: When I moved away from being an aspiring capitalist to a professor in the humanities, I think what defined me was my almost total immersion in great literature, great music, and great art. I’ve been to Florence probably 40 times and spent I-don’t-know-how-many hundreds of hours in churches and museums looking at Renaissance art. The music I listen to, the art I love, and the literature I read have defined my humanity and how I treat other people. I believe these interests have helped me to develop a very high level of empathy and compassion. And, I think both of those are really important in leadership.

I remember once watching on PBS a New Year’s Eve event at the White House with Bill and Hillary Clinton — they had invited poet laureates to the White House for a reading of poetry. I thought it was amazing that they were spending that particular evening listening to poetry being read.  And, I think of how Jimmy Carter wasn’t afraid to shed tears as he listened to the Juilliard String Quartet playing Beethoven’s opus 135, his last string quartet — one of my favorite pieces of music. This to me is true leadership — letting your humanity and compassion shine through for all to see.

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