A Conversation with President Papazian

A Passion for Higher Learning

mary papazianSCSU: You were a very successful student, graduating summa cum laude and being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. What fueled your success?

MP: I grew up in a family that was very much committed to education. My mother, who was a teacher, was really the star of the family. She graduated from high school at 16 and was the first student elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior at UCLA. My father was born in Greece of Armenian parents and came to this country as a college student. He was an avid reader, so we were always surrounded by books. It was just something that was part of our household.

I have three brothers and we’re all within a four-year span from top to bottom, so maybe there was a little bit of competition. For whatever reason, I seemed to do well in school. Some children are made for school and others succeed in other ways. I seem to be one of those who was made for school. All of my brothers also earned advanced degrees.

You attended the first Armenian- American high school.

I am of Armenian parentage on both my mother’s and my father’s side. My mother’s family came to the United States in the late 19th century, very early for Armenians. My father immigrated in the 1950s and met my mother at college.

I actually was raised in my early years in more of an American environment. The '60s weren’t a time of celebrating your ethnicity. We were coming out of the '50s and it was a time of everyone fitting in.

Initially, my brothers and I went to the public schools. But when I was 12, we moved from one part of Los Angeles to another. Right before the move, my mother had started to teach English and American history at Ferrahian High School. When we moved, we became students there. We happened to live next door to the principal and we didn’t have ties to the local schools.

It’s a wonderful small school, with a college-prep environment. The students have done very, very well. I recently went to my reunion and it was a lot of fun to see how well our graduates have done.”

mary papazianThe Armenian-American media covered your appointment with a sense of pride.

It’s a small community with a common history that was born most recently out of the tragedy of the 1915 Armenian genocide, but actually has a many-thousand-year history marked by many successes. Because the American Armenian community is so small — and because it emerged from that tragedy early in the 20th century — people really do have common interests and a strong connection. There is a lot of celebrating of and pride in each other’s successes.

You mentioned that your mother taught English. Did this factor into your decision to become an English literature major?

There’s probably a direct connection. She was an English major and taught English literature for many years. From the time that I was about 5, I knew I was going to go to UCLA to study English literature. It was nothing that was forced on me; I just really enjoyed reading and the vistas that it opened. Majoring in English was a great opportunity to study something that I loved.

“At the time, my father, the practical one, would say, ‘What are you going to do with that degree?’ — which is what parents sometimes say to children who want to study the arts or the humanities. But the truth is you find a way to be successful if you have passion for something, and I always had passion for  literature.

mary papazianYou served as a professor for many years. What led you to become an administrator?

I had the opportunity to participate in the university self-study for accreditation for Oakland University, Michigan. That experience exposed me to the entire university, academic and non-academic. Ultimately the success of the self-study is what led me to be invited to be associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

But it’s important to note that I never call myself simply an administrator. I consider myself an academic administrator, because I’ve always continued to nurture my identity as a faculty member. I try to stay active in my field as much as possible given the time constraints. At the end of the day, it’s what really motivates me . . . teaching, reading and writing about what I love and sharing that passion with students and colleagues. In my experience, the best academic leaders are those who come out of rich academic traditions.

What was it about Southern that attracted you?

I found that I felt a strong resonance with Southern's powerful mission of engagement, social justice and creating access, but with a strong commitment to excellence at the same time. It was very much aligned with the kinds of institutions that I have been at from the beginning of my career and so I saw that there might be a nice fit here.

What are some of your immediate goals?

There are long-term goals and short-term needs. One of my long-term goals is to ensure that Southern continues to be a very significant player in the higher education landscape in the state of Connecticut and the region. Southern has a particular mission as a public institution to connect actively with its community and to create pathways to success for students who might not otherwise have them. I am very much committed to the access mission, but I am also committed to the excellence mission of the university.

mary papazianThe 21st century has a knowledge-based economy, so we need to be developing a knowledge-based workforce. Southern has in its curriculum a very strong liberal arts core. That liberal arts focus prepares our graduates to continue to reshape themselves as the economy reshapes itself . . . and helps them to become more independent in their thinking and, ultimately, to become leaders in their chosen fields.

Southern also has a strong commitment to science education, the arts and to everything in between. I am committed to ensuring that Southern maintains and strengthens its balance between the liberal arts core and professional education to best prepare students to become leaders in the workforce of the 21st century.

In the short term, we have to look at the nature of our graduate programs to make sure they are best serving the needs of the business community and our students. We also have to look at how the new state system of higher education evolves as it brings together the state’s public institutions of higher learning — the two-year colleges, the four-year universities, and Charter Oak — and determine how we can become a leader in shaping its future. Those are some of the immediate challenges that we face, and I am confident that Southern is up to the task.

Clearly there are budgetary challenges.

I grew up and went to school in California. I worked in Michigan, New Jersey and New York — these are states that have had their share of budgetary challenges. Limited budgets are the nature of public higher education today. Our challenge is to work within these constraints, while building resources and support from those who believe in what we’re doing. Then we can continue to move forward with a positive agenda.   

Where does the corporate community fit into the equation?

It’s a win-win situation. We are only as strong as our partnership with the larger community, which includes the business community. They, in turn, are only as strong as Southern is because it’s our students who will be recruited as employees and, ultimately, business leaders and community leaders.

The business community will help us understand how we can best prepare our students going forward. They can help us anticipate the future because they have to anticipate their own needs. We can then align our curriculum in a positive way, while always maintaining our liberal arts core, which is timeless. The relationship between Southern and the business community can become very powerful. We will be looking for a win-win situation where we invest in them and they invest in us.

Much of your scholarship focuses on the English poet John Donne. Do you have a favorite line from Donne’s work?

There are so many, but I’ll give you one. I have written a lot on Donne’s ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.’  There is a very famous line that comes from the work, which not everyone realizes is from Donne:  ‘Never seek to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’  What I find so moving about the line is that it talks about our common humanity and how we are all linked. It’s about how what happens to one person affects all of us . . . and how we need to think about the good we do in the world. I find it to be a very moving line.”

You’re the parent of a college freshman. Has this provided any new insight?

One thing that the experience has really called to mind — and this is an interesting issue for Southern — is the balance between the residential student experience and the commuter student experience.

I was a commuter student in college. It was the only way my parents could manage to send four of us to college in such a short period of time. Our older daughter, a freshman at Tufts University in Boston, lives on campus. She’s very happy and has adjusted beautifully. But I’ve noticed that she talks as much or more about what goes on outside of the classroom as what goes on in the classroom. It’s not that she’s not interested in academics — but she is really interested in and affected by all that goes on outside of class. Here at Southern, this is something we have to pay a lot of attention to on behalf of all of our students — both those who live on campus and those who commute. Their education extends beyond the classroom. It’s a critical part of our students’ growth and we have to think about their education holistically to best meet their needs.