Sibling Rivalry

New provosts at Miami U. in Ohio and SUNY-Albany, brother and sister, offer (sometimes) competitive views on their careers.
December 14, 2005

Like the close debate partners they were in high school, today Jeffrey Herbst, provost of Miami University in Ohio, and Susan Herbst, provost of the State University of New York at Albany, often argue on the same side of the fence. But just as back then, sometimes their critiques turn on one another.

For instance, when they were both chairs of their respective political science departments -- he at Princeton University, she at Northwestern University -- Susan says that Jeffrey often tried to lure faculty members away from her department. 

“He did not succeed while I was there,” she notes. “It was a pretty mean thing to do anyway.”  

“Susan may be my sister,” says Jeffrey of the situation, “but Princeton was paying my salary.”

The accomplished scholars grew up just outside of New York City with an elementary school mom and a dad who worked as an engineer for IBM. “Our parents made it explicit that we would attend college,” says Susan.

And attend college they did. Jeffrey earned his political science bachelor’s from Princeton and his Ph.D. from Yale University. Following quickly in his footsteps, Susan, 15 months younger than Jeffrey (they are currently 42 and 44), earned her bachelor’s in political science from Duke University and her doctorate in communication theory and research from the University of Southern California.

There are plenty of academic families, of course, but the Herbst siblings are among the few holding high ranking administrative positions at the same time. During the 1990s, Harold Shapiro was president of Princeton while Bernard Shapiro, his brother, led McGill University, in Canada.

The Herbsts, both in their first year as provost, took a few minutes from schedules filled with trustee meetings, faculty conference calls, and weather-related campus issues to answer a few questions from Inside Higher Ed.    

Q: We know that Jeffrey is older, but who’s wiser?

Susan: Well, I think women are generally wiser, but that’s nothing against him personally.

Jeffrey: Susan.

Q: Who’s been in academe longer?

Susan:  I took a year off between college and grad school, so he’s got a slight edge there.

Jeffrey:  That is correct.

Q: Who makes more money?

Susan: Wait, I think that’s a state secret.  Actually, though, I think I make a little more than him.

Jeffrey:  That is probably true.

Q: What’s your sibling best known for in academia?

Susan: His work on Africa and the nexus of geography and politics is incredible. He’s really a leader in that area. And, I’m happy to say that I’ve read all his books, but not all the articles. I’ve got to draw a line somewhere.

Jeffrey: Susan has been in both communications and political science and done excellent work in both. I think that puts her ahead.

Q: Who’s published more scholarly works?

Susan: I don’t know. He does more policy type stuff. It’s pretty close, but I’d have to say it’s about quality, not quantity.

Jeffrey: I agree. Page counts are not that interesting.

Q: Who’s going to be a university president first?

Susan: (laughs) Well … that really depends on our spouses….  As much as we’d both like to lead a school, we are both very happy where we are now.

Jeffrey: I think that we both have wonderful jobs that require our full attention.

Q: Who tends to be busier?

Susan: Well, one Friday I was having the day from hell. And he called me to shoot the breeze! I asked, "You don’t have anything to do?"

Jeffrey:  As provost, I try to have at least one unscripted conversation each day. On that day, Susan was the victim.

Q: Who calls back home to the parents more often?

Susan:  I do -- maybe it’s a gender thing…  And I moved closer to our parents who still live in the Hudson Valley.

Jeffrey: As noted before, quality is more important than quantity.

Q: Might your parents have a favorite child?

Susan: Yes, and it’s neither of us. It’s the third Herbst sibling, Steve, who’s the vice president for the National Basketball Association. His major was sports management, and he’s an incredibly lovable, generous, non-academic guy.

Jeffrey: No comment.           

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