BOSTON – Dr. Thomas Katsouleas, the Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Virginia, was unanimously elected this week President of the University of Connecticut (UConn).
Katsouleas, a prominent educator and administrator, is also a proud Greek-American who loves and respects his roots, adores Greece, and spends his summers there with his wife and two children. They visit his parents, who moved back to Greece from Arizona after his father retired and sold his electronics manufacturing company.
In a telephone interview with The National Herald Katsouleas said, “My father, who is an electrical engineer, was born in a small village called Exahori in Mani and came to the United States when he was 19, brought here by my great uncle who came to Ellis Island from Kalamata in 1902. My father named me after him instead of my grandfather, and my baptismal name is Athanasios. My mother is an American and they met at the University of Arizona.”
He told TNH, “my parents are back in Greece we have a home in the village and they spent their time there and in Athens in Neo Psihiko, and we go back as a family every summer.”
Asked what drew him to the study of physics he said, “when I was ten years old my father told me ‘I want you to be an engineer but first you should learn physics.’ Initially I didn’t want to do it, but I stuck to it because I was fascinated by what I was learning.” Asked what fascinated him about physics, he said, “how the world works and the joy of discovery, but actually I then began leaning towards engineering. What really captivated me was the power to design new things and trying to build something that will be useful. In the end, it was more exciting to me than understanding nature.”
Nature continues to fascinate him, and he told a story about trying to share his interest with his daughter. “When our daughter was six years old we took her to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and she saw a planetarium show and after the show she said to me ‘sometimes mommy and I play this game where I always ask questions. Do you want to play that, daddy?’ I said yes Katerina, and she said ‘so what was there before the Big Bang?’”
Humbled, he said, “I had spent my entire life studying physics,” he said. “I had a PhD, and the first physics question she asked me, I couldn’t answer. Then she said to me ‘you are not as smart as mommy is.’”
Regarding his unanimous election to the presidency of UConn two days earlier, he said, “I am honored and humbled and overwhelmed with the sense of responsibly for leading such an institution that so many thousands of people feel deeply about. I am also thrilled and excited to be given the privilege and the honor, and I look forward to helping the institution and its people reach their expectations, which from everything I learned from my visits is very high.”
Asked if his election was a surprise, Katsouleas said, “you never know. It was a long process and there were other candidates who were also very good, but I would say that during my first meeting with the search committee I felt a certain resonance, and I thought that was a sign, that there was something going on there, that we clicked, and that there was chemistry between us.”
Katsouleas has a dream for UConn. He said, “I kind of have three main thrusts in mind. The University has tremendous momentum particularly in undergraduate programs and I would love to build on that in some ways, but first, I must address the research program and graduation education. My ambitious operational goal is to double the research and scholarship funds at the University over a ten year period. Second, I want to really push UConn into the national conversation about the future of education in this country. UConn can play a significant leadership role in shaping that conversation. I think we can do some things that can be revolutionary and pioneering in higher education. The Third thing is to align the University with the priorities of the new governor of the state, shaping the programs to support work force needs and student needs, and to increase the financial strength of the University.” Regarding the Center for Greek Studies “Paideia” established by the Paideia organization headed by Elias Tomazos, Kastouleas said, “I am very happy to learn about the Greek connection there and I will get to know more about it.”
Speaking about his Greek-American identity and heritage he said, “I am very proud of it. I feel fortunate to have a Greek background, with the culture which I admire so much and the values including hospitality, the connection you feel no matter where you are when you are with someone who is from the Greek-American Community. The Community was very supportive of me here in Virginia when I came in. One of the first large gifts that were made to the UVA [during my tenure] was by a Greek parent, John Georges and his wife from New Orleans, and they did it, I think, because they wanted to help me to get off to a good start. I can’t say enough about the warmth and the friendship wherever I go.”