Q&A with: Interim UNH President Bonnie Newman

Currently interim president of the University of New Hampshire, J. Bonnie Newman’s extensive careers in both the private and public sectors have included management positions over administrative and executive operations at the White House during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush and president of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire. A graduate of St. Joseph’s College in Maine and Pennsylvania State University, Newman’s ties with UNH are long and extensive. She was dean of students in Durham when John Lynch, our current governor, was a freshman there. In addition to her duties as the university’s interim resident, she is executive dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Q. You’ve had many interesting jobs. How does this one rank as far as being challenging?

A. Oh, very challenging and right up at the top on the enjoyment and satisfaction chart.

Q. It must be something of a mixed blessing, then, that you’re here on an interim basis.

A. Well, yes and no. If this had all happened five or 10 years ago, it might have been even better than it is. But you know, it’s serendipity because it’s happened at this stage of my life, because I am 61, and that’s a good age for a president.

Q. You attended a small college. Do you think students sometimes feel lost at a large university?

A. You don’t have to, because there are pockets of smaller communities. The difference in being in a large public research institution, which is what the university is, is the difference between going into a local neighborhood variety store versus going down the street to the supermarket. At the supermarket, there are so many more opportunities that are available for students.

But students are smart and they find their niche. Some find that niche early, perhaps while they are still in high school. And some are in their late 30s with two or three degrees, and they’re still trying to find themselves. Some are 61 and still trying to find themselves.

Q. Are you still trying?

A. I’m always looking. Definitely. Life is as journey. It’s all about discovery.

Q. What do business leaders tell you they want to see in students when they enter the workforce, either from high school or college?

A. What I hear most consistently is they want students who are able to be critical thinkers and who are able to write well.

Q. Are they finding the graduates who come to them are lacking in one or both of those skills?

A. I think they are, and typically in both.

Q. What’s driving up the cost of higher education so dramatically?

A. There are multiple factors, mostly technology. It’s one of the big drivers. To have a vibrant technology program, which is so essential in the world that we live in, you need new laboratories, you need highly sophisticated equipment. We right now have two experiments that NASA launched recently, studying the solar system. Those things are expensive. Do our students need to be exposed to it? You bet. It’s the only way that they’re going to be trained and skilled to be able to help us compete.

Q. I’m sure the faculty would say it’s not faculty salaries that are driving the cost.

A. Well that’s part of it. They’d say it’s not high enough, and the staff would say the same thing. And the students would say their tuition is too high – which, by the way, I think it is. We rank 50th in per capita state aid to higher education. We rank first in the level of student loan debt when students graduate.

Q. One of the challenges at a university is that you have teachers and students form so many points of view and ideologies that clash here and you have to make sure they clash peacefully.

A. Respectfully. I think the goodwill of the people who are associated with the university is one of its hallmarks. And I think they are respectful of one another.

When I first arrived last June, I immediately sat down with the student leadership, and I was so taken with these kids. I mean they are good young people. And I think the same is true of our faculty, and obviously our staff. It’s not uncommon to meet people here who have been here 20 to 30 years, have made an entire career of being part of this university. And I think in large part it’s because of the passion they have for the place. They want this to be a wonderful university, so everyone works hard at that.

Q. There was a controversy last year about Professor William Woodward, who has a theory that he shares with his students that our government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. Some thought it would have been an opportune time for elected officials, including the governor, to take a stand for academic freedom. He chose not to. Were you disappointed?

A. I think that the governor was acting as a governor would have to, and I acted as a university president. We saw the situation from each of our individual perspectives. I think a great many people were as frustrated as the governor was at Professor Woodward’s view of what happened on that tragic day. However, while we disagreed with his conclusion about what happened in New York on September 11th, we respect here his right to be able to express his views.

Q. And then Sen. Judd Gregg said there are limits to freedom of speech. Any thoughts about that?

A. We disagree. Let me say in the instance that we’re discussing, I don’t believe that we stepped over that threshold.

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