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State money inspires UConn president to dream big

The University of Connecticut is hiring extra faculty, accepting more students and working on a vision for each campus, including Avery Point in Groton, in anticipation of the first installment of NextGenCT funds, scheduled to arrive in July.

The legislature approved more than $1.5 billion in bonding and $137 million from the state's general fund for "Next Generation Connecticut"- an initiative to significantly expand UConn's science, technology, engineering and math programs and to make the research university a leader in these disciplines over the next decade. The goal is to bring thousands of jobs to Connecticut and revitalize the state's economy.

In an interview last week, UConn President Susan Herbst described this school year as "a planning year."

The hope, Herbst said, is to follow the example of the Research Triangle in North Carolina, "a place that really links industry and university and education." One of the most prominent research and development centers in the United States, the area including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill is home to a mix of high-tech start-ups, large corporations and research institutions.

"This is really the fun part, to dream what's going to be possible," she said.

Even before funding was approved, UConn Provost Mun Choi charged a university committee in February with answering big picture questions, such as, when students graduate, "Who will we want them to be?" And years from now, "What will the university be known for?"

Now that committee's plan will guide how NextGenCT money will be invested. Rich Schwab, the Neag School of Education professor of educational leadership, serves as chairman of the academic vision committee. Similar committees are forming at the university's regional campuses, and their strategic plans will be incorporated into the larger plan.

After Herbst and Choi give their input, the plan will be sent to the board of trustees for approval in March or April.

Through NextGenCT, the university's older buildings will be demolished or repurposed, and maintenance work that had been delayed for years will be done.

UConn will hire 259 new faculty members, 200 of whom will be teach the so-called STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and math - and will enroll an additional 6,580 undergraduates. Total enrollment last fall was 30,256.

"We've had close to 5,000 applications for about 450 spots in engineering and this year, because of Next Generation Connecticut, we were able to accept 200 more students in engineering and approximately 200 more students in biology and the other physical sciences," Choi said.

Seventy professors will be hired soon through NextGenCT, and roughly 30 more will be hired with normal funding, Choi said. Herbst said UConn recently "stole" professors from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, in part because of the promise of NextGenCT.

More social scientists, humanists and faculty for the professional schools are being offered jobs because the state funding for STEM professors has taken the pressure off the regular hiring plan, Herbst said.

A "great misunderstanding" about the project, Herbst said, is that UConn will become an engineering school and other subjects, such as the humanities, will be left out. A social scientist herself, Herbst said she would not let that happen.

She expects the philosophy department, for example, to be a leader nationwide; the two professors who relocated from North Carolina are experts in cognitive philosophy.

"STEM is extremely important to the economic development of the state," she said. "But the truth is, this is why great universities do put tremendous amounts into the humanities and social sciences.

"If you did science, but you didn't have public policy, you didn't have sociology, you didn't have the arts and humanities, we really would want to close down. Because then what are you doing science for? What do we really care about as people, as societies, as cities, as communities? What are our values? How do we get joy in life and beauty around us?"

At Avery Point

Through NextGenCT, Herbst said she would look at each campus and determine its best possibilities.

At Avery Point, it obviously makes sense to strengthen the Marine Sciences Program, she said.

The next step is to develop a plan that explains which fields within marine sciences should be enhanced so Avery Point can make its mark nationally and internationally, Herbst said. She also would like to see the campus, given its location overlooking Long Island Sound, become a leader in environmental stewardship for the future of the waterway.

"That does mean hiring more faculty, working on our facilities, and obviously the big Coast Guard building in the middle of campus has got to go," she said, referring to the vacant structure that used to be the home of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center. "That's not really an appropriate building for that campus, and it's an eyesore."

Investing in Avery Point could help the local economy, too, by creating jobs, Herbst said. Southeastern Connecticut has lagged behind the rest of the state, which has lagged behind the nation, in rebounding from the economic downturn.

When the governor first proposed NextGenCT, the local legislative delegation feared Avery Point would be overlooked because there was no specific allocation for it in the original proposal. Because of their lobbying, $15 million was earmarked to renovate two buildings and improve the dock used for research vessels.

Herbst said she expects Avery Point will receive more money, especially since demolishing the Coast Guard building will be expensive. She said she could not say how much because large infrastructure projects, such as repairing the steam lines under the Storrs campus, would consume a sizable portion of the $1.5 billion and she does not know how much will be left.

Two additional faculty positions already have been approved for Avery Point, and UConn is exploring the idea of constructing a conference center and dormitory building in Groton, Choi said.

This school year, Avery Point will have a full-time professor to teach engineering to freshmen and sophomores. In recent years, aspiring engineers were taught by an adjunct faculty member as freshmen and then transferred to Storrs to continue their studies.

"There is a lot of discussion about how we can make Avery Point live up to its potential," campus director Michael Alfultis said. "That's where I see the conversation going. ... That's what I'm encouraged by."

Alfultis said he will ask faculty and staff this fall to serve on a committee that will examine how they can modernize, expand programs and make the campus energy efficient. He would like to see Avery Point become a prominent marine and maritime STEM-focused campus that creates solutions for sustainable coastal environments and economies.

"I want to see us looking at more than just the scientific examination of the coastal environment. The humanities, social sciences, resource management policies, I want us to look at all of those," he said. "If we are an integrated campus, focused on all aspects of human interaction with the coastal environment, we'll be very distinctive."

In fact, the most popular major there is psychology.

Alfultis said he knows a lot needs to be done in Storrs, so he is excited that improvements to the regional campuses are a priority, too.

"I do think it is on the horizon for Avery Point to see a significant improvement, including a new academic building and at least housing, if not a conference center and housing," he said.

For the entire UConn system, Herbst said her vision is "very, very simple."

"I want to make this an even better, more productive and more prominent research university," she said. "… We want to solve big social problems, whether it's the environment or energy or poverty. We want to be a leader in research. That's our job. We're the only flagship university in Connecticut. We're the only public research university. We want to cure cancer at our Health Center in Farmington. We want to do all of the most important things that a research university does for humankind."

How to do that, she added, is "not rocket science," although "we'd like to do rocket science, too."

"It takes resources," Herbst said. "We're lucky that we're in a progressive state where the legislature and the governor invest in us, and they know if they invest in us, we will do great things."


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