For what seems like the first time in living memory, a governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, has pushed back a little against the arrogance of the University of Connecticut.
Maybe the pushback won’t last long, especially if one of the university’s basketball teams wins the national tournament in a few weeks and state residents revert to thinking that UConn can do no wrong and should retain priority over everything else in state and municipal government. But prompted by the governor’s resentment of what he called the “misinformation” spread by the university’s new president, Radenka Maric, the state has a serious controversy over UConn’s budget and management.
The university claims that the governor’s budget proposal cuts UConn’s appropriations by more than $100 million. The governor says his budget, like all his previous budgets, continues to increase the university’s basic appropriation and that the money that will be missing from UConn is only emergency aid received from the federal government that is expiring with the virus epidemic, money that was to be used to cover epidemic-related losses, money UConn knew or should have known would not be recurring.
Leaders in the General Assembly, which has many members who seem incapable of asking critical questions, especially about UConn, suggest that they’ll work out the problem — that is, the legislature again will give the university whatever it wants. Yet the situation is full of critical questions that should be asked.
The university’s capacity for basic management was most notably called into question recently by its being required to pay $14 million last year to former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie for firing him in 2018 without giving him the balance due on his multi-million-dollar contract. UConn lost the case in large part because it had permitted Ollie to join the professors union despite a contract that raised him far above working-class status.
But far more costly has been UConn’s long failure to close the huge operating deficits at its Health Center in Farmington, deficits attributed to excessive staff compensation. The legislature grouses about the deficits but always covers them and never does anything to close them.
Now UConn is complaining about the big costs it will incur from the master state employee union contract that the governor’s office negotiated, securing the support of the unions in the recent election by raising state employee pay dramatically. It’s a fair complaint that also is being made by the administration of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system — a complaint that rising staff compensation is cannibalizing higher education.
But it’s a dishonest complaint because it is being made so late. It should have been made last year before the legislature ratified the contract. Anyone could have seen that higher staff costs were certain but not necessarily higher appropriations for them.
It is also a dishonest complaint because UConn long has paid spectacular salaries. According to the Hartford Courant, which last week cited data from the state comptroller’s office, the 15 highest-paid state government employees work at UConn, as do 66 of the 90 highest paid, and the university has the largest payroll of any state agency, including big ones like the correction, transportation, and judicial departments.
Some salaries in the regional colleges and universities system are spectacular too.
Meanwhile the UConn Foundation’s most recent report showed $745 million in assets — not Harvard- or Yale-level endowments but large enough to help the university through an unexpectedly difficult budget year.
Besides, Connecticut is foolish to worry so much about higher education, which is overrated and overpriced, when the state’s elementary education is collapsing, with most students never mastering high school math and English before being awarded a diploma anyway, with nearly all students being advanced from grade to grade without necessarily learning anything — a policy of social promotion — and with a quarter of those students now classified as chronically absent.
At least money may not be the problem at the elementary level but rather policy. How does social promotion persuade any student or parent of the necessity of taking school seriously?
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. (CPowell@JournalInquirer.com)