Woman of Impact: Radenka Maric

Our Woman of Impact profile features a local woman making a notable impact in our community. For this issue, we spoke with Radenka Maric, president of the University of Connecticut (UConn) since 2022. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Maric earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Belgrade. She later obtained her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Kyoto University in Japan. Prior to her appointment as president, Maric served as the vice president for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship at UConn from 2017 to 2022. As president, Radenka has been a voice for tolerance and diversity of thought and has stood decisively against the antisemitic speech plaguing many college campuses. On April 30, 2024, she joined UConn’s leadership in dismantling the university’s protest encampment, citing its violation of institutional guidelines. Radenka is fluent in four languages and is an accomplished cook, musician, and seamstress. She and her husband Charles have four biological and two adopted children. 


What role has Jewishness played in your life?
It plays a big role in both my family and identity — including all the pains and celebration of what it means to be Jewish. I come from former Yugoslavia, a country that now doesn't exist, where the first Jewish community came to Bosnia in 1492, fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese. So, Jews have been part of that community’s fabric for generations. They were at first treated as second-class citizens, but were later afforded significant rights and autonomy and enjoyed peaceful existence until the second World War. The war and the Holocaust devastated Bosnia-Herzegovina — three-fourths of Jews were murdered by Nazis and Croatian Ustaše. Many Bosnian Jews who left chose not to return, and those who stayed became silent. 

Then we had the Civil War in the 1990s and many people left. Each time there was a war, more Jews left. So, we were not a big community and [Judaism] was not celebrated. The synagogue was destroyed in 1943 and not rebuilt after the second World War. I could go to synagogue when I went to college in Belgrade, but not during my upbringing — because it didn’t exist.


How have Jewish values helped you become the person you are today?

Jewish values play a large role in who I am as a person: Don't judge people; know what your purpose is in life; do your best. When I  was growing up, it was important in my family to always ask, “How are we going to help others?” Those values were part of our tradition, and remained goals from generation to generation, regardless of the circumstances we experienced. 


How were you affected by your childhood in the former Yugoslavia?

When I lived in Yugoslavia, I thought it was the best country in the world. I had a great education and a lot of friends. But I was also aware that there were limitations, that it wasn’t all rosy. My father's parents were killed [in the Holocaust], so he grew up without parents. And in the late ’80s, I saw signs that history might repeat itself. I saw nationalism; I saw the economy suffer; I saw inflation — and although I left before the Civil War started, I witnessed the human tragedy while I was away. 

In war, there are no winners. Someone is losing a brother; a mother is losing her child. I witnessed this heartbreak in my life, and although I was not surprised, I was very sad.


You’re serving as the president of UConn at a time when antisemitism is prevalent on campuses across the country. How do you approach hateful speech as both a Jewish person and the leader of your university?

The safety of our students is my number one priority. Inclusion and having people feel that they belong is number two, and respect is number three. 

I sign my letters with “leading with love and joy for all,” and I truly mean it. We are blessed to be citizens of the United States. I’ve lived in seven countries, and I'm not saying the U.S. is perfect, but it gives us the freedom to become educated and express ourselves. As a naturalized American citizen, I'm very grateful to this country for the opportunity of a lifetime in leading a higher ed institution. It is a difficult time because there is a lot of anger and hate, but as leaders, we have to invite people to celebrate what we have in a great democracy. However, we will not keep that democracy if we lose the ability to have dialogue and understand diversity of thought. The problem has become ‘Who is the loudest?’ and we are losing [a sense of] inclusion and an understanding of different perspectives.


UConn took decisive action in dismantling the protest encampment on your campus — one of many across the country. How did you come to that decision?

Everybody has freedom of speech — but we also have the freedom to enjoy our space and to be educated. If one group is occupying [campus] space for an infinite amount of time, there’s no longer freedom for everyone to enjoy and share that space. Also, we have university policy to follow. The moment we don't follow policy, we fail as a higher ed institution.

The people who are screaming want to bring something to the conversation, but how they're doing it is not inclusive. So, you have to make them aware that this is not acceptable. However, you also have to stay neutral as a leader. Allow people to express themselves, but never support hate or aggression. At the end of the day, there is accountability for all of us, including me as a president. If you start from a perspective of neutrality, you then have to follow policy and create an equal environment for all.


What advice would you give to Jewish women who also want to make a meaningful impact in the world?

Be the voice of wisdom, particularly on what is acceptable and unacceptable society for women. No woman in this world should be beaten, raped, or insulted — and when we see that something is wrong, we have to be the brave voice that says, “This is unacceptable.”

I’ll give you an example. After October 7, I was surprised that there was no me-too moment. We all saw the woman on the pickup truck, half naked with men spitting on her. We saw women covered in blood — and we were silent. If that happened in any other part of the world, we would never be silent. So I'm really inviting us all to ask, where do we stand? What are the rights for women? When we see abuse and atrocity, we cannot stay silent.