Conn College senior defends school’s role in New London

Newly named Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron prompts the audience to sing along to the Alma Mater as Bergeron is installed as the 11th President of Connecticut College during Inauguration ceremonies in Palmer Auditorium Saturday April 5, 2014.
Newly named Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron prompts the audience to sing along to the Alma Mater as Bergeron is installed as the 11th President of Connecticut College during Inauguration ceremonies in Palmer Auditorium Saturday April 5, 2014. Tim Cook/The Day

Last time I checked, my dorm room walls were not coated with gold but rather with peeling paint, off-white and revealing a sickly shade of yellow underneath. But according to Day columnist David Collins, I must be mistaken, because apparently the college I attend, Connecticut College, is a "gilded enclave of arrogance."

The quote comes from Collins' column, "Shame on Connecticut College," published April 2. The commentary was an ineffectual and uninformed attempt to lampoon President Bergeron through a knee-jerk reaction to an interview she gave.

Here's the situation: because Connecticut College is a nonprofit academic institution that provides social and economic benefits to the surrounding community, it is not required to pay property taxes to the city of New London. The college does voluntarily contribute $12,500 per year directly to the city. Bergeron met with the mayor of New London early this year, and on the topic of increasing this payment she said, "the college is not looking to revisit it."

In reality, the quote that Collins directly attributes to Bergeron comes from an article published in The Day one day prior to his own. He might have taken notice of an actual quote of Bergeron's directly following that sentence, in which she states that discussion of the $12,500 payment "will be an ongoing conversation." But erroneous quotations aside, the point remains. New London wants Conn to increase its donation to the city, and President Bergeron isn't prepared to fulfill the request. This made Collins mad, and thus he has called shame upon our entire school, the school from which he graduated.

His anger is not entirely unfounded. If Connecticut College's tax-exempt status were removed, the school would be required to pay New London $5.8 million per year. This sum would no doubt be a massive help to New London's struggling economy and when compared to a yearly donation of $12,500, Conn comes out looking a bit thrifty. But only if that comparison is made in a vacuum. There are reasons that the state has laws in place to protect academic institutions from property taxes.

Conn is one of New London's largest employers, with a payroll that re-invests $65 million into the city's economy annually. The college also spends $30 million per year on goods and services, the majority of which is spent on local vendors. Local contractors are often utilized in the building and renovation of campus facilities, which the school has spent $70 million on over the last five years. On top of all this, the college draws nearly 8,000 visitors per year who are likely to stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and spend money in local shops. There's also the money that students frequently spend in New London. And, although admittedly more intangible, Conn does provide many social and cultural benefits for the surrounding community, such as concerts, plays, lectures, events and access to facilities such as the Arboretum, library and Athletic Center.

According to Collins we are "a social predator on a poor city." I'm not exactly sure how. I'm not even sure what Collins thinks he means when invoking that phrase "social predator." He doesn't really explain, except to mention two isolated incidents through which he suggests that Conn wasted tax dollars when calling upon New London police officers - incidents such as "when a cafeteria worker (was) accused of sexual assault." Yes, I suppose in that example he is correct. We cost the city money in order to investigate a potential sexual assault. How dare we prey on a poor city like that. Shame on us.

Perhaps if Conn were more similar to the super-rich institutions to which Collins compares us, we wouldn't be such a disgrace. These schools are Brown and Yale, which Collins upholds as shining examples of universities that put Connecticut College to shame in their support of their host cities. "Clearly, the stewards of (these) more enlightened institutions understand 21st century economics and the challenges faced by the small impoverished cities that have hosted them all these years," he writes.

I would guess that it is not a better grasp of economics that allows Brown and Yale to lend such strong fiscal support to their host cities, but more likely their immense endowments, which are, respectively, 10 times and 100 times larger than our own. You would think that as a Conn alumnus himself, Collins would realize how ridiculous it is to compare the financial stability of a small liberal arts school with that of two Ivy League megaliths, but he couldn't help sneeringly remarking upon what he found to be the grand irony of a president emerita of Brown delivering a key-note speech at Bergeron's inauguration.

What's actually ironic is Collins praising former Conn President Claire Gaudiani and criticizing President Bergeron in the same breath. "Gaudiani was roundly criticized for her interference in New London politics and investment of college money in the city," he writes. "But who can't respect her often-repeated goal of social justice and improving life in an impoverished city."

Apparently Collins can't, for these goals of Gaudiani (whose actions resulted in her resignation at the hands of a faculty petition and left the school with a sizable debt) are those of Bergeron, who has time and time again declared commitment to improving relations between Connecticut College and New London.

"The connections between Connecticut College and the city of New London go back a century … I look forward to nurturing this historic relationship, and deepening our educational involvements, to the mutual benefit of both our students and our community partners," said Bergeron in an open letter to the community. It's true that, for now, these are just words, but it is also true that Bergeron has been president for a grand total of 12 weeks. She will most certainly be judged on the actions she takes to achieve these goals, but the judgment should probably come after she has had time to act.

Although Collins' criticism of both Bergeron and the college as a whole is preemptive, unnecessarily aggressive and myopic, there's something important to be gleaned from his commentary. The relationship between our campus and New London is far from perfect. The perception of Connecticut College as "a gilded enclave" is not an original one and is in fact present throughout our surrounding community. And even if this perception comes from a place of misinformation, it's our responsibility to show New London that our walls are not covered in gold, and our gates are not sealed shut.

There will need to be a lot of change to bring Conn and New London to a place of fully productive and positive coexistence. But with a new president dedicated to the cause and a massive reinvention of the college underway, I believe we might be on the precipice of that change.

Sam Norcross is a senior at Connecticut College majoring in English and Biology. He wrote this commentary for the student newspaper, The College Voice.

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