Board of Regents names Terrence Cheng new president of CT college system

Photo of Ben Lambert

NEW HAVEN — Terrence Cheng’s mother and father left behind their careers in Taiwan to come to America with their son in tow. His mother, previously an English teacher, waited tables; his father, a staffer at Taipei University, stocked grocery shelves and pumped gas. They built a life for their son.

On Friday, Cheng, formerly the director of the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, took on the mantle of helping prepare young people across the state from all walks of life for the future, as he was named president of the Connecticut System of Colleges and Universities by the state Board of Regents for Higher Education.

Speaking at a press event, Cheng noted his parents’ example, saying it was particularly meaningful to take on this role, given this history. It was difficult to leave UConn-Stamford, he said, but this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

“I am humbled to be tasked with such an incredible responsibility,” said Cheng. “It is a surreal experience for me to be here right now, to have this charge, to have this responsibility bestowed upon me, and it is going to be one of my life’s greatest challenges, and indeed, one of my life’s greatest honors. There’s no question about that. And I consciously, cognizantly, carry with me the legacies of my own family, but also for all the first-generation and immigrant students that populate not only the great state of Connecticut, but so much of our nation.”

As an organization, he said, the state college system prioritizes and champions equity, access, dignity, social mobility and growth. In the job, he said he hoped to support the “noble work” of educators and help prepare students for the future.

“Every student who enters the doors of any CSCU institution deserves the opportunity to succeed in the classroom and improve their prospects for a meaningful career, because public higher education can be transformational — we know that, we see it every day — but still, too many people, too many students ... don’t have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and to achieve those goals,” said Cheng.

Officials lauded Cheng, a former professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, as well as UConn, as an educator of uncommon vision and empathy, saying he had demonstrated a particular understanding of the lives of students and the possibilities of the state college system.

Matt Fleury, chairman of the Board of Regents, said more than 40 people from across the state and college system, including staff, faculty and students, had been a part of the search committee that prompted Cheng’s appointment.

A small number of candidates had drawn consensus, he said; Cheng’s candidacy led to a clear conclusion.

Asma Rachimyar, the first Rhodes Scholar to attend Southern Connecticut State University and a member of the search committee, said Cheng’s compassion and honesty had stood out, as well as his macro-level understanding of the challenges facing the system.

The college system represents hope for many, Rachimyar said — for her friends who struggle to pay bus fare and light up at the mention of Oscar Wilde; for her students who stay up late translating their assignments into English; for the professors who help students find themselves in sonnets and equations.

“Within an hour, Mr. Cheng managed to delineate a vision that provides substance and solace in equal measure. The challenges our colleges and universities will encounter in the coming years are, without a doubt, formidable ones. They will require difficult conversations within which vying perspectives must be navigated and unjust systems of power interrogated, as well as concrete follow through, for our communities deserve nothing short of tangible results,” said Rachimyar. “What an honor it is to be able to celebrate Mr. Cheng as our next CSCU president, for he understands what this hope means.”

Jane Gates, outgoing interim CSCU president, said Cheng’s experience as a teacher helped him stand out to her.

“He knows what our students need to thrive, what excites our students, and what motivates our students, and what our faculty need to educate and support them,” said Gates. “Serving as interim president myself, I am confident that Terrence has the skills, experience, resilience, demeanor, and most importantly, the willingness to listen to diverse opinions, to make him a successful president of our system.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said Cheng was the “ideal man” for the job, as he stepped to the fore during a transformational moment.

The coronavirus pandemic, he said, posed an opportunity for the state, as well as a responsibility — many students had been out of the classroom for a year; the federal government has provided funding to allow the state to recover and move forward.

The educational system, he said, has to “educate the whole person to do the right thing, to step up every day, to deal with changing circumstances.”

“I don’t want to waste this opportunity as a state,” said Lamont. “I have a feeling that Connecticut is not going to disappoint and I have a feeling that Terrence is not going to disappoint.”

Mark Ojakian, former president of the system, retired at the end of 2020.

During Ojakian’s tenure, the 12 disparate community colleges were combined into a single institution, prompting some controversy.

Cheng said the goal behind combining the community colleges was to ease the lives of students, allowing them to more easily access administrators and faculty; the issue is successfully executing that.

Ojakian also focused on training college students for jobs in advanced manufacturing, and worked to address the need for equity in education for both low-income and LGBTQ students.

Cheng declined to discuss specific goals and initiatives for his tenure Friday, saying it was fundamentally too early to do so. He said he wanted to work with people from across the system and understand their perspectives, as he and others work to address financial challenges, enrollment, and morale among educators.

“The journey is important,” said Cheng. “How we get there is important.”

william.lambert@hearstmediact.com