I t’s December 13 at the University of New Haven’s main campus in West Haven, and the usually bustling walkways have thinned out. Finals are about to begin; students are hunkering down to prepare.
A group of them pass by empty benches coming from the direction of the library. Laura and Ariana are studying criminal justice, and Kaitlyn is majoring in forensic science. “I would literally have done anything to come here,” Kaitlyn says. Her fellows nod in agreement.
UNH is growing, and not just in reputation. Since 2004, when current president Steven Kaplan took the reins, engineering enrollment has soared from 400 students to 1,350, and the total number of undergraduates has more than doubled, from 2,000 to 5,000, among many other impressive stats. “When I got here, there was an incredibly strong history in engineering and business,” Kaplan says, referring to UNH’s conception on Yale’s campus as a supplement to those departments, but “what I found was a school that had seen serious declines in enrollments in all of those areas.” Kaplan saw an opportunity for UNH to reclaim its former distinction.
Especially important to Kaplan was the reintegration of hands-on learning—or, in the current academic parlance, “experiential learning.” When UNH was still an embryo on Yale’s campus, Kaplan says most of the faculty members were “practitioners in the community. … I said we should revisit those roots and bring back our focus on hands-on learning. We have [instructors] who have actually practiced what they’re teaching—they’re not just theoreticians. It’s very much in the DNA of UNH.”
And in the students’. “30%… are first-generation [collegians],” Kaplan says. “They’re not by any means privileged… They grew up with people that do things. People that, in the very best sense, work for their living.”
Out on campus, a fourth student, Ryan, passes by the school’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences. He’s a criminal justice major and soccer player, and when he thinks of what he likes best about UNH, he turns to the glassy, geometric, slate-gray building behind him. “This place is sick,” he says, going on to express amazement at the quality of the laboratory facilities inside.
Since Kaplan began at UNH, new buildings, including that one, have gone up, and satellite campuses have been acquired in Tuscany and San Francisco. It’s surprising to see so much change in a little over a decade; educational institutions, especially ones that have been around since 1920, don’t tend to be this agile. Kaplan wryly credits the speed of change to his presidential methodology.
“I’m a benevolent dictator, and I think that’s important in higher education,” he says. “I have immense respect for democracies and how they function. But they’re messy and dirty and sometimes you just have to say ‘this is going to happen’ and do it. Faculty historically—not just here but across the country—are people that teach change, teach revolution in their disciplines and want very little to do with change in their own lives.” A good administrator, he thinks, is one that can enact change anyway.
Kaplan’s methods were remarkable enough to draw Dr. Ibrahim Baggili—a rising star in cyber security and forensics—to accept a job at the university. After starting the first cyber forensics research lab in the Middle East at Zayed University, Baggili says he “decided to come back to the US to compete with bigger scientists.” Although he says he had job offers from “tier one institutions,” he was immediately drawn to UNH thanks in large part to the attitudes of Kaplan and the dean of the engineering school, Dr. Ronald Harichandran.
“They have this attitude that they want to get things done. They’re very entrepreneurial,” he says. “I was really excited about being part of a university that’s growing, as opposed to a university that’s stale and stable because they’re much bigger. It’s like being part of a startup.”
Baggili’s department is acting like one. Recently, they’ve been in the news for developing an investigative tool that helped authorities charge a Massachusetts resident with 18 counts of voyeurism, as well as for exposing privacy issues with the popular messaging app WhatsApp. Baggili says he appreciates how well-matched the university’s drive is with his own: “The fact that the university is small and wants to be the best at everything really resonates with me.”
UNH—once an overshadowed supplement, later a stagnant stand-alone—has gotten down to business, and engineered its own renaissance.
Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photographed by Dan Mims.