Optimism at Odds with Budget Cuts, Reality at UConn Says Associate Prof

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To the Editor:

The past December 18th, the University of Connecticut publicly announced the adoption of a new 10-Year Strategic Plan. Official statements from the administration described it as an ambitious plan, “promoting holistic student success, expanding the University’s research impact, and helping Connecticut thrive.” A few days ago, in emails to the staff, President Radenca Maric invited the UConn community to “celebrate the arrival of 2024 with a sense of Husky optimism and hope.”

As a foreign faculty, who came to UConn ten years ago attracted by what at the time seemed a university with ambitious plans of investment in research, I find the optimism that the administration has been displaying for the past few months and years to be at odds with the reality of decisions that are being made, and ultimately with the content of this strategic plan.

Just two days before the Board of Trustees’ adoption of the Strategic Plan at its December 6th meeting, President Maric had communicated to our Senate that the university would be facing a 15% budget cut over the next 5 years. As some Deans explained to us, this will near a total of a 19.1% cut because UConn will have to cover an additional 4.35% cost to fund salary increases that are not being funded by the state. Since 2022, despite mounting inflation and loss of purchasing power of our salaries, Governor Ned Lemont refused to fund the increase, after years of salary freeze; the university absorbed the cost.

The state implemented budget cuts throughout the pandemic years, while Connecticut was collecting unprecedented tax revenues. UConn dealt with a 6% budget cut in the last 3 years. And yet, this appears to be not enough. In 2024, UConn’s budget cut will be more than three times that of previous years if the position of the administration does not change. Currently, 98% of the fungible part of the university’s budget is taken up by personnel.

The disheartening thing is that these glad tidings have been disclosed right before the holidays as a plan, not a proposal. There has been no serious effort to engage with the academic body at large – instead, a survey was circulated in September, to gauge staff’s key priorities, with the enticing promise of being “selected at random to receive a $50 gift card.” At UConn, as at most US public higher education institutions, decisions are made by the Board of Trustees, behind closed doors. New faculty members like me quickly realize that they are at the receiving end of a chain of command, rather than active members of a body, capable of contributing to the governance of the institution.

According to early estimates, the cut is so large that it will entail getting rid of entire units. As a department head explained, “even if we eliminated all our graduate programs, we would still be just over halfway to what we would need to cut”. And without the graduate programs we would not be able to form future generations of researchers and instructors, or to teach most of our courses.

We do not understand what the ultimate and ideal goal of Gov. Ned Lamont and UConn’s Board of Trustees is. Like every other state university in Connecticut, UConn’s administration recently announced to the students, increases in tuitions, dining, and housing rates, while at the same time has been asking departments to expand the number of seats in classrooms. As a faculty I can tell you that this means for the students less quality of teaching at a higher price.

In recent years, faculty have enthusiastically embraced the idea of becoming a R1 research institution in which first generation and historically underrepresented student population could thrive. Yet, I have the impression that Lamont and the Board of Trustees believe that UConn should drastically lower the quality of its education offer to meet the needs of these new students. While sons and daughters of affluent families will go to elite universities, to receive selective education, with adequate support and enticing career opportunities, UConn will be tasked with creating a malleable workforce, ready to fulfill the needs of the local economy and labor market. Is this the political vision of the governor and the Board of Trustees? We would even venture to ask if this is what the Democratic party has to offer to new generations and their families, in terms of social and economic development of the state and the country.

What concerns and frustrates us the most however is not just the elitist ideology that speaks through these decisions. It is the top-down decision-making process, the lack of inclusivity and real democratic debate on the future of education in a flagship R1 public university. The trend of state disinvestment from public education is presented as an undisputable reality, as are many decisions that are made in this country. Recently we have witnessed similar cuts happening to other universities across the country. It is regretful to see UConn on this same path.

Andrea Celli
Associate Professor
University of Connecticut