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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    UConn, state college leaders seek millions of dollars amid ‘a massive burden on our students’

    Top college administrators traveled to the state Capitol complex Tuesday, telling legislators they need millions of dollars to keep their universities at a high performance level and avoid sharp cutbacks.

    The leaders of the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut state university system, which includes community colleges, said they are trying to balance their budgets as they look ahead to the next school year.

    UConn is seeking $64.2 million for both the main university and the health center in Farmington, while the state university system is requesting $47.6 million to balance its books.

    UConn President Radenka Maric said the university is trying to generate new revenue in order to keep tuition and housing costs affordable for as many students as possible.

    “My focus as president is students first,” Maric told the budget-writing appropriations committee. “The reason we are doing well is because of UConn’s affordability. … We need $64 million that we asked for.”

    At the same time, some lawmakers said they are concerned about the sprawling public university system, which includes four regional state universities that are known as Western, Eastern, Central and Southern. Gov. Ned Lamont and university administrators say Western Connecticut State University is underwater financially.

    Rep. Corey Paris, the committee’s vice chairman, became emotional as he was lamenting the closing of campus fitness centers, reductions in tutoring, elimination of some positions, and even the closure of the cafeterias at some colleges due to budget cuts. Paris blasted the legislature for not providing more money for the universities and community colleges.

    “It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Paris, a Stamford Democrat who graduated from Western Connecticut State University. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”

    Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat, agreed with Paris that the state university officials should not have asked simply for $47.6 million to balance the budget but should have asked for more to improve both the universities and the community colleges.

    “There are folks who don’t understand we’re dealing with an education system, not a company,” Winfield said. “It makes no sense to me to ask for less than what we want.”

    But Chancellor Terrence Cheng, who oversees the sprawling system, said, “Our organization is scrutinized for every nickel and dime we spend. … We have been told explicitly that we need to live within our means.”

    Due to budget problems, Cheng said the system raised tuition by 5% last year and then this year voted again to raise another 5%.

    “That’s a massive burden on our students,” Cheng said, as officials noted that tuition increases often lead directly to enrollment decreases as students drop out due to the increased costs.

    Elephant in the room

    But Rep. Kathy Kennedy, a Republican from Milford, said that legislators had failed to address “the large elephant in the room” that UConn has consistently had some of “the highest paid employees in the state.”

    Kennedy’s comments came in the final minutes of the allotted time for UConn, and the committee co-chairwoman, Sen. Cathy Osten, cut off the discussion and avoided a full-blown debate about college salaries.

    “I think we have a difference of opinion on what is the elephant in the room,” said Osten, a Sprague Democrat.

    State statistics show that the top 15 highest-paid state employees all work at UConn, and 66 of the top 90 also work at UConn. The university has the highest total payroll of any state agency, including large departments like corrections and transportation, as well as the entire judicial branch, according to statistics released by the state comptroller.

    At the CSCU system, Hartford Courant columnist Kevin F. Rennie reported Sunday that Cheng was making budget cuts at the same time that he was awarding large salary increases to central office administrators. Jessica Paquette had been earning $83,000 per year at UConn, but is now being paid $200,000 annually as vice chancellor for system affairs and chief of staff at CSCU. Another employee, Daniel Aniello, had been earning $111,000 at UConn and is now earning $200,000 per year.

    Cheng noted that the number of top management positions at CSCU has dropped from 32 to 23 over the past four years.

    Officials are careful “to benchmark compensation levels according to the responsibilities,” Cheng told The Courant on Tuesday. “So everything is done by the book, with transparency, with multiple layers of review within our system.”

    The new Senate Republican leader, Sen. Stephen Harding of Brookfield, raised questions Tuesday about the timing of the management raises.

    “With regard to the Connecticut State Universities and Colleges system, large raises were recently given to senior staff at the same time tuition was hiked,” Harding said. “People on Main Street see something like that and want to know why it happened. That decision should be explained to Connecticut taxpayers.”

    UConn applications up

    UConn officials touted a record-breaking number of application at 58,000, an increase of about 10,000. Some officials said one of the contributing factors is that the UConn men’s basketball team gathered increasing attention during the season before winning the national championship during the past season, drawing national attention to the university as nearly 15 million sports fans watched the final game on television.

    After questioning, UConn and health center officials said they are not planning any layoffs as part of the budget-cutting.

    UConn’s tuition has increased by 227% over the past 14 years, while the state’s block grant has decreased from $233 million in the 2010 fiscal year to $216 million in 2024, officials said.

    In different panels and in public testimony, students arrived at the state Capitol to speak on Wednesday night. In written testimony, Carla Galaise told her story as a single mother at Northwestern Connecticut Community College after being a grocery store manager, waitress, and bank teller to pay her bills and support her young son. She is now an intern at the Legislative Office Building, where the hearing was held.

    “Here, I learned from financial aid that I could take out loans, so suddenly, my world opened to in-person classes, and right away developed connections with professors and other students like me, students looking for second chances,” Galaise wrote. “My entire life I had to scrape the barrel for help, but suddenly, now, I had the support I needed. Food stamps still don’t cover our bills, but I can visit our food pantry every week.”

    Galaise added, “We need this funding. Otherwise, people like me are lost, wasted potential struggling in the day-to-day. We are the most vulnerable students, and to succeed, we need your help. Community college has given me and tens of thousands of others a safe place to learn, grow, and break free from poverty, but we need this. I beg you to support us, give us a chance, so we can all work to grow Connecticut together.”

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