With her corkscrew curls, dressed in white and sporting blazing-white, UConn-branded sneakers, Radenka Maric seems to glow as morning sunlight illuminates her Gulley Hall office on the sparkling autumn day we meet for an interview.

Like a “tell” in a poker game, the University of Connecticut’s new president reveals her cards as we settle into comfortable sofas: Our interview couldn’t begin until I agreed to let her properly welcome me by serving coffee, tea or water. Maric may be an internationally recognized expert in clean energy, but she’s powered by the fuel cell of a soul with a European sensibility.

It’s a soul that’s been tested and forged by hardship beyond what many have known. Born in the former Yugoslavia, whose 1990s civil war tore apart both the country and her family and left her struggling to afford food while studying abroad in Japan, Maric took a unique path to becoming the 17th president of UConn (and only second woman to lead the institution) this past fall. Whether native to her character or earned through her life’s experiences, Maric’s trademark engagement, empathy, power to inspire, and pure positive energy radiates out onto those she encounters. 

In likening Maric to a rock star, UConn Trustee Tom Ritter signaled that the earned qualities of respect and reverence have already rendered her a mononym. Like Madonna or Oprah, she’s simply Radenka. (Asked for her take on Ritter’s encomium, Maric speculates that he might also have been referring to her high energy, like that of Rod Stewart, perhaps.)

Either way, there’s a new “rock star” commanding the stage in Storrs. 

Flanked by a floral vase and a UConn Final Four basketball in her Storrs office, University of Connecticut President Radenka Maric brings worldly experience to an increasingly global job.

Flanked by a floral vase and a UConn Final Four basketball in her Storrs office, University of Connecticut President Radenka Maric brings worldly experience to an increasingly global job.

Lisa Nichols

When Maric was named the permanent president in late September, after becoming the interim in February, it came at a time when world news remained fixated on the leadership crisis in the UK, a much louder echo of the uncertainty that has rippled through UConn’s presidential politics in recent years.

Former university President Thomas Katsouleas, who found himself at odds with the Board of Trustees over his management style, resigned in June 2021 just two years into a five-year contract. The board appointed Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, then CEO of UConn Health, as interim president in July 2021, and only months later in January 2022, he announced his departure to become president of Humana’s Home Solutions business.

Maric, who holds a Ph.D. in materials science and energy from Kyoto University, joined the UConn engineering department faculty in 2010 and served for five years as the university’s vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship before being tapped as the next interim president beginning Feb. 1. 

At the time she was hailed by UConn Today as “a distinguished UConn faculty member who has led UConn’s surging research enterprise to new heights as an administrator,” though it was also noted she was leading UConn as it searched for a permanent president. 

Amid the presidential turbulence, is it troubled times for the state’s flagship university? Just the opposite, actually. 

Since 2000 the university has been rising in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, ascending from 38th into the top 25 among public universities, and holding at 26th in the latest rankings this past September. And on the most prominent reputation litmus test for big-time colleges and universities, UConn’s marquee sports teams have bounced back in style after struggles in recent years.

With the interim tag from Maric’s title now removed, it appears those presidential comings and goings were nothing but minor ripples on the Storrs campus’ iconic Mirror Lake. The first internal candidate since 1990 to be named UConn’s permanent president, Maric has the confidence of the school’s Board of Trustees, which enthusiastically elevated her to lead the state’s flagship public university to even bigger things.

Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Toscano told UConn Today, “She is a force of nature: deeply committed to UConn, determined to get results, and all-in when it comes to leading this institution into a future that will be defined by success and achievement.”

All great leaders tend to exhibit equilibrium at a high level on three interrelated aspects: what they’ve accomplished (the foundation), the impressive things they can make happen (the potential), and who they are (the soul of the operation). Nurtured by a European upbringing, and the worldliness of studying and working in Japan, Maric is a master of that latter, often intangible quality.

Maric is presented an award for "most courageous and inspiring young scientist" in Kyoto, Japan, in 1994 by Soroptimist International, a global volunteer service organization for women.

Maric is presented an award for “most courageous and inspiring young scientist” in Kyoto, Japan, in 1994 by Soroptimist International, a global volunteer service organization for women.

Courtesy of UConn

She isn’t the first UConn president to be born outside the U.S. (Her immediate predecessor, Agwunobi, was born in Scotland and raised in Scotland and Nigeria.) But she might be the only one who is fluent in four languages — Croatian, English, German and Japanese — and also paints, plays the piano, and designs and makes clothes, having been first inspired by receiving a sewing machine as a gift when she was a child. 

She also loves to cook. “I like to bake. I’m a very old-traditional mother,” Maric says. A cookbook passed down from her grandmother is a treasure, and challah bread is her favorite thing to bake for her family.

Four generations live in her house in West Hartford, including three sons who are graduates of UConn, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter, and her mother-in-law. “We have a big family and I take pride in the community I have in my house and they give me great joy,” she says.

Asked how well she plays piano and her favorite composer, she names Mozart and the “Moonlight Sonata,” and says, “I play for myself, just for my soul.” 

One senses there’s more to the music for Maric than mere enjoyment.

Born and raised in Derventa, then part of Yugoslavia, to parents who were doctors and highly valued education, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in materials science from the University of Belgrade. She and her husband, Charles Maric, now director of technical business development and students’ Senior Design Program projects in UConn’s School of Engineering, met in college in Yugoslavia and moved to Japan to pursue advanced degrees.

The civil war that would break apart Yugoslavia began after they left. “It was very hard to envision war in the former Yugoslavia because we took such great pride in being multicultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic people all living together peacefully,” Maric says.

Her parents and brother remained in the war-torn country and were funneled through a series of Bosnian refugee camps, which Maric says took a tremendous physical and emotional toll on them. She located her brother and was able to get him to Japan but couldn’t find her parents for a very long time, despite her brother traveling back from Japan several times to search for them. They were finally located and brought to Japan, but both died shortly afterward from the effects of the trauma they had suffered.

“They never recovered from the stress of the war. I always say, ‘I brought their bodies out but could never bring their souls,’ ” Maric says.

“Everything we do, we ask the question, ‘How does this help our students to succeed?’ ” Maric says in describing her guiding principle.

It’s not just a leadership model but also a philosophy deeply informed by her personal experiences. Amid the war in Yugoslavia, the scholarships funding her studies in Japan suddenly vanished, leaving her with no resources, a passport that was no longer valid, and struggling to even afford food at the same time she and Charles had been blessed with a child. 

“In Japan when you’re poor and you get help, you get a completely different appreciation of life,” Maric says. “I’m very grateful for the people of Japan.”

Last July, she was inducted into the National Immigrant Heritage Center. Her inductee profile continued that story: “She told her mentor that she was broke and could not pay for school. ‘And that’s when he says, “I don’t care if you are American, German or Bosnian. I know you’re smart and hard-working, and I am going to help,’ ” Dr. Maric recalls. “I remember it like yesterday. He took me to his bank, he pulled out $3,000 from his account, and he paid for me to go to school.”

Maric shares her promise to that mentor: “One day in life I want to give to my students what you’ve given to me.”

The challenges Maric has faced and overcome inspired her to establish more than $100,000 in fellowship funds. One beneficiary, Arpita Kurdekar, a recipient of the Dr. Radenka Maric Fellowship Fund for Engineering, shifted the focus of her studies after a 2016 accident in which she was struck by a tree limb which left her paralyzed. Now a teaching assistant and research assistant at UConn, she is “developing a multidisciplinary interactive virtual reality educational experience … that allows the user to learn the concepts through active participation in the virtual world,” according to her LinkedIn profile.

Maric inspired the confidence to pursue new challenges, Kurdekar told the UConn Foundation. “Dr. Maric said, ‘You need to do what your heart wants to do,’ and she supported me to follow my dreams.”

“It is our responsibility as successful women to stand at the door and let other women in,” Maric told the foundation, but her students-first philosophy also has no boundaries and plays no favorites.

UConn Today described Maric’s priorities when she was named interim president in January 2022: “What has always been most important to her is the process of mentoring students and ensuring their wellbeing, helping them discover their academic passions and create professional and personal lives in which they, too, make their mark on the next generation as mentors.”

In working toward the goal of preparing students for successful professional lives, Maric says UConn must continually assess where students are today, contrast that status with what the world needs, and create harmonious alignment through an “experiential education” that complements core competencies and the rigors of varying majors with creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as social-emotional intelligence.

“Every student should have financial literacy during their education. Every student should have hands-on experience with a nonprofit or companies,” she says. “My goal is to have every student spend one semester abroad to gain experience, study global issues, and have a better understanding of the world.”

She also has top administrators meeting with student leaders once a month as part of an initiative focusing on “encouraging dialogue by being present.”

All of that adds up to seemingly monumental goals, given that total enrollment stood at 32,146 as of fall 2021 (the latest available figure), which included 23,837 undergraduates across all campuses, with the majority, 18,567, in Storrs. UConn had 569 law students, 452 medical students, and 211 dental students. 

In-state tuition stands at $15,672. That cost rises to $33,056 when the meal plan, student fees, and on-campus housing costs are added. (In early December, the Board of Trustees approved new fee rates which, along with an already scheduled tuition increase, will raise the total annual in-state cost to $34,362 for undergrduates for the 2023–24 school year.) 

In the 2021 fiscal year, $257.4 million in scholarships and grants were given to students, and excluding UConn Health, some level of financial aid went to 24,300 students on all levels.

Last fall, UConn’s 5,800 incoming first-year students across all campuses included a record of 4,075 at Storrs.

Maric also shares something in common with another recent former UConn president. Like Thomas Katsouleas, a physicist, engineer and inventor, Maric has a scientifically and mechanically tuned mind focused on results. Her research fields include the chemical and physical processes underlying the synthesis of nanomaterials, alloys, oxide materials and structures, the relationship of the physics and chemistry of growth to the attainment of novel materials and structures, device enhancements for batteries, fuel cells and medical sensors, and alloys and oxide materials for catalyst and energy storage. 

In short, her goal is to change the world by innovating in the field of clean-energy technology. She holds a number of patents, including one for making high-temperature, polymeric catalyst-coated membranes for use in fuel cells. She has published hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, and has received more than $40 million in research grants.

Maric arrived at UConn in August 2010 as a professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, and was also the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund Professor of Sustainable Energy in the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering departments.

Before being named interim president, and then president, she served as executive director of UConn’s $132 million Innovation Partnership Building, described as a nexus for industry-academic partnerships and home to specialized equipment and research centers of excellence. 

Maric in 2019, as UConn’s vice president for research, at her lab at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering.

Maric in 2019, as UConn’s vice president for research, at her lab at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering.

Peter Morenus/UConn

Next, as vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, Maric oversaw management and implementation of a $300 million research budget and the research and investment portfolios of UConn’s 12 colleges and schools, including the medical school, dental school, and five regional campuses. Under her leadership, UConn brought in a record $375 million in research funding in fiscal year 2021.

Maric’s over-achieving continued as interim president, when she elevated UConn’s profile on the national stage, hosting visits from high-ranking state and federal officials, including representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration. Extending her efforts to the international stage, Maric went on a development mission to Israel with Gov. Ned Lamont and state leaders.

“UConn is the economic engine of the state,” Maric says.

New evidence to support that assertion arrived with the Oct. 20 announcement that UConn reached an agreement to partner with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on a collaboration for clean-energy innovation and grid resilience. “The NREL will establish a research collaboration with UConn at the Innovation Partnership Building at the UConn Tech Park designed to leverage scientific knowledge and state-of-the-art facilities to address global energy challenges, including energy efficiency and resiliency, renewable energy technologies, and smart grid innovation,” UConn said. 

“I appointed Dr. Maric to serve on the board of Connecticut Innovations based on the incredible contributions made in improving and strengthening UConn’s prowess in research,” Lamont said when Maric was named president. “She understands that making Connecticut the most innovative state in the nation requires collaboration between the world’s leading businesses and our higher-education institutions.”

In tandem with UConn’s strides as a leader in the field of clean-energy research and innovation comes a need to “brag about the achievement of our people,” Maric says, mentioning that a 1996 Nobel laureate in physics, David Lee, holds a Master of Science degree from UConn.

The big business deal in the pharmaceutical world making news just after Maric was named president, Pfizer’s acquisition of Biohaven, valued at $11.6 billion, certainly gave UConn bragging rights. Biohaven CEO Vlad Coric earned his undergraduate degree as an Honors Scholar in physiology and neurobiology at UConn.

In mid-October, the spotlight shifted to alumnus Trisha Bailey, who came to campus in conjunction with the celebration of 50 years of Title IX. “Her time in Storrs & love of her mother & later her children, was [an] inspiration for her to achieve global entrepreneurship success,” Maric tweeted (@UConnPresident), acknowledging Bailey’s gift to UConn Athletics. The undisclosed amount, the largest for the athletics department and the largest cash contribution ever made by a UConn alumnus, will support a new student-athlete success center. 

Maric, while serving as UConn’s interim president last May, meeting with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (center) and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney at UConn's Innovation Partnership Building.

Maric, while serving as UConn’s interim president last May, meeting with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (center) and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney at UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building.

Peter Morenus/UConn

Speaking of sports, the UConn athletic department’s widely reported $47.2 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year caused great consternation and hand-wringing, especially as it followed several preceding fiscal years of $40 million-plus deficits and came amid changes that were protested (cutting the women’s crew program, which spurred a lawsuit and led to reinstatement).

“When I came as a faculty member, I was skeptical of the athletic department,” Maric admits, recalling that she thought, “Why lose $40 million? You should just focus on education.”

Her views have changed over time as she has come to appreciate the salutary impact of UConn sports beyond win-loss records, tournament results, and national championships. Student-athletes tend to be more driven, focused and committed to success in all pursuits, which builds character, Maric found. She also cites studies showing mental health issues are far less prevalent in athletics than at the collegiate level generally as another factor that “completely changed my perspective.”

That evolution of thought, flowing from her student-first perspective, is part of a bigger-picture shift. “When Jim Calhoun started to win, that changed the state’s perception of UConn,” says Maric, channeling the legendary coach who famously called athletics UConn’s  “front porch” which aids the growth and advancement of a university: “I think we have to have more wins, and I think we have to have more donors. On the weekend, do you want to watch baseball or football or do you want to watch a physics experiment? Sports are the porch for people coming to UConn; education is the living room. It’s very important to balance that portfolio.”

Maric takes the helm of a university with a $300 billion annual budget and $602.7 million endowment, anchored by the main campus in rural Storrs, with regional campuses in Hartford, Stamford, Waterbury and at Avery Point in Groton, as well as the UConn School of Law in Hartford and the UConn School of Medicine in Farmington.

She inherits a list of expected challenges in guiding UConn, and her position in the vanguard of clean and sustainable energy inspires other goals.

As a state institution, UConn must be ever vigilant about what percentage of its budget is coming from the state, Maric says, naming as a priority the need to look for new ways to generate revenues. This might include development of summer programs, for example.

The challenge of increasing aid and scholarship money for students will involve an initiative to increase contributions and gifts from alumni and other donors.

UConn’s role as a research institution leading the way on clean energy will increasingly harness private, government and state investment to help shape philosophy and policies at the intersection of sustainability and our role as humans on the planet, says Maric, citing the work being done at the Eversource Energy Center at UConn, a partnership in which research, technology and software are addressing challenges for electric customers caused by weather, climate and energy.

Another important question is how to put sustainability into practice in campus and technology development, including partnering with industry sources instead of asking the state for money. “On the UConn campus we commute 2,000 miles a day,” Maric says. “How can we change this and reduce CO2 emissions? What are the steps? How many chargers? When do we replace buses with electric or fuel cell buses …?” 

The goal underlying those questions is for Storrs to become a carbon-neutral campus. 

Maric upped the ante on achieving the goal in late October when UConn assembled educators, state and federal lawmakers and industry representatives for a conference, Navigating Climate Change & Energy Security in the Northeast. She pledged “to work with the state, the federal government, donors, industry and global partners to reduce UConn’s carbon footprint to carbon neutral by 2030.” In reporting on the conference, Energy News Network noted plans for a new three-building, 258-apartment housing complex that will rely on hydrogen-powered fuel cells for electricity, and geothermal wells for heating and cooling.

It was in Japan where Maric first learned that Connecticut was the birthplace of fuel cells, and her professional career began in Japan, including positions as a research scientist for the New Energy Development Organization Tokyo. In the mid- to late ’90s, she even served as general manager for the Nagoya Grampus Japanese association soccer club, a role that arose from her participation in the leadership development program of Toyota Motor Corp., which founded the club.

From Japan, Maric moved into a program-manager position at nGimat, formerly Micro Coating Technology (MCT), a fuel cell research company in Atlanta, and then on to a leadership position with the Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation in Canada, before coming to UConn in 2010.

“UConn is Connecticut, and Connecticut is UConn,” Maric declares in our interview. It might not be difficult to find someone to quibble with that assessment, but give her time. Anyone who meets Maric will understand the board’s confidence in her ability to advance UConn’s status and success.

As only the second woman at the helm of UConn since the university’s founding in 1881, Maric doesn’t feel the weight of the university’s long history on her shoulders. UConn 2000, the 10-year project begun in the mid-’90s to rebuild, restore and enhance the university’s physical infrastructure whose cost reached into the billions, was for her “the big marker for change.” 

“We are the champions of a certain period of time and the university is larger than any of us,” she says, summoning thoughts expressed by President Emeritus Susan Herbst (2010–19) in a farewell speech. In other words, it’s the university’s bright future Maric is here to engineer, a journey she has been pioneering since arriving in Storrs.

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