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Inside Thompson Hall: ‘It’s different all the time’

TNH sits down with President Mark Huddleston and talks personal hobbies, daily life and university happenings

By Melissa Proulx, Staff Writer

Nick Stoico/Staff
Nick Stoico/Staff

With classes coming to an end and finals on the horizon, the TNH editorial staff took some time to sit down with President Mark Huddleston to reflect. An aviation and motorcycle enthusiast, Huddleston has held his position since 2007. Before moving to the second floor office of Thompson Hall, he was a professor in the political science department, a position that he just gave up recently after he had too many schedule conflicts. During these last few years, he has made it his mission to better the lives for everyone on campus, addressing each issue with careful precision.


How do you think the academic year is going so far?

A: It’s going really fast, for one thing. I went over to Zeke’s for lunch, as I often do, today and it just struck me that everyone is studying for finals … More substantively, it’s been a great year. I talked to a lot of alumni groups, and I get to tell them a lot of great, new stories, like the fact that we admitted the largest freshman class in our history, which is good not because of the numbers per se, but because it’s an indicator of how people feel about UNH and how popular it is. At a time when a lot of colleges and universities are struggling to attract sufficient numbers of students, we’ve got an embarrassment of riches and that’s wonderful. The other thing I like to tell alumni, of course, is about fundraising. It’s another major marker for me and once again, we blew through our record. That’s happened now almost every year … This year was almost $50 million … There’s always little bumps and hurdles here and there, but overall, I think it’s been a great year.

Has the fundraising been from just one certain thing, like the Month of Believing?

A: No, that’s been a steady drip, drip, drip all across the year. Obviously, a couple of really big gifts help a lot. Last year, we got Marcy Carsey’s $20 million gift. This year, we got a $10 million gift from Dana Hamel and some other pretty substantial gifts as well. The gifts in smaller amounts make a big difference, too.

Does a lack of state support put New Hampshire in a unique position compared to others?

A: No, I think if you look nationally, the big difference historically had been between private and public universities … that private schools in general had relied on the generosities of alumni to help pay their bills. Public institutions were late to that fundraising game and that was largely because most public universities most of the time had a fairly robust level of support from their respective states. UNH, despite the fact that it historically never really got very much money from the state of New Hampshire, didn’t really develop a … very active and robust fundraising effort until relatively late. But again, I think that’s something that can be said of most public universities … The numbers have been really good, but we’re still in the early stages, we’ve got a long way to go.

What does your job as president of the university entail?

A: It’s kind of a hard question to answer. For one thing, what I do is never the same thing from one day to another, so it’s hard to describe my job by giving you a summary of activities. But in general categories, I’m probably the main public face of the institution. So I’m sort of the ambassador of the university, dealing with outside communities … In addition to that representational role, I have a legal fiduciary responsibility in a lot of respects. All organization, whether they’re private businesses or not-for-profits, hospitals, universities, there’s a government structure so that someone is responsible up the chain of command … The buck stops some place, legally and financially. So that’s an important role I play, too. I wind up having to make thumbs up, thumbs down decisions on a whole variety of things that I may not do directly, but they come up to me as recommendations; or I have to go to the board and get approval for something. I also like to think that I’m the university’s chief innovation officer … I take that role really seriously … Change doesn’t come easily, but my job is to nip at the heels of folks and try to make change happen whenever I can.

Did you see yourself being the president of a university?

A: When I was an undergraduate … I was involved in student government and those student activities … Those were exciting times, those were the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, there was a lot going on at campus … I got to know some administrators, including the president of the university and other senior administrators as a result … I thought “Hm, that seems like a cool thing to do.” … So when I was 19, 20 years old, there was a seed planted I suppose, but then I went off and had a standard academic career, and it took me a long time to come back to that…

What’s your favorite part of your job?

A: Probably the fact that it’s different all the time. I get bored really fast, and you never get bored in this job because every day is so different.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face this year?

A: I’m not sure there’s any one thing. The hardest thing always is getting that phone call, usually from Mark Rubenstein, and sometimes [it’s about] really horrific things, like a student death, which is always the hardest thing to deal with. But we had some incidents … with a basketball official that was really hard to deal with. That’s probably the most difficult, messiest sort of stuff.

When you have to get involved in student life and speak to them about safety on campus, what is that like?

A: I think that’s an important part of my job, too … We are, even though a really big family, we’re essentially a sort of family where everybody has some common points of attachment, and we ought to care about one another and take care of one another, and my job, in part, is to remind everyone of that occasionally … We did have a weekend to kick off the school year that caught everybody a little bit off guard, that was not a typical UNH weekend … We’ve gotten recognized nationally for our sexual violence prevention programs, there’s a number of reasons we’ve been recognized for those. One of the key elements is the bystander intervention programs that are a core part of that.

How often do you get to interact with students?

A: Not often enough … A part of it is a function of other things I have to do … I wound up being on the road a lot. But part of it also, even when I’m around here, it’s easy to get stuck in here. If I’m not teaching a class, which I have not been able to do, how do I interact with students? I visited dorms, I go to athletic events, we tried stuff in Holloway where we advertise the fact I’m going over there and I serve dessert or do something like that … It tends to be a little bit more irregular than I would like.

What is some of the work you do outside the university?

A: I’m a first-generation college kid, so that role of education has been really important for me … New Hampshire is a smaller state so I [thought] I could probably get around the state. So I’ve been trying to make the rounds and visit as many high schools as I can to talk to students, not about UNH, and I tell them that at the beginning … But I want them to think about going to college because it really makes a difference in your life … I have no illusions that I’m going to be able to change that myself … It’s great and I learn a lot. I’m sure I get more out of it than they do.

How do you gauge student happiness on campus?

A: Interestingly, we are taking that question very seriously. And not just student happiness while you’re here, but what happens when you graduate and how does your life turn out and how successful are you. We’re beginning to pay much more attention to that and how to measure it because I think that question is more and more on the minds of perspective students and their parents … So I feel like we need to be able to answer that question …

How do you get feedback from UNH students?

A: I’ve got the app for Yik Yak, and I check that from time to time. I get a lot of students that follow me on Twitter, and I follow them. I think Twitter is really a pretty interesting measure of what people are talking about, thinking about at any given time.

What are some of your other passions?

A: My passion outside of here is aviation, and I’ve done a lot of aviation courses … This is a beautiful part of the country. My favorite route to take is to fly around Lake Winnipesaukee. I’ve gone to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for lunch. It’s a lot of fun.

Where’s your favorite place to eat on campus?

A: Hoco … That would be my number one … I think Hoco is amazing and the choices of quality food that’s available.

If you had a day completely free, what would you do?

A: I read a lot, I like to do wood working … I play golf really badly, I ski pretty badly, I like to hunt and fish. I mean, I’m never bored, there’s always just more things to do than I ever have time to do. But flying is probably the number one thing I can do.

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