HARTFORD — The state is investing $1.55 billion in tax dollars at the University of Connecticut over the next 10 years to bolster research programs and facilities, hire faculty and establish partnerships with the business community.
On Tuesday, lawmakers got a detailed look at what that money is paying for.
UConn Provost Mun Choi provided members of the General Assembly's commerce, higher education and finance committees with an overview of the project during a two-hour meeting at the Legislative Office Building.
Dubbed Next Generation Connecticut, the sweeping effort aims to remake the university into a leader in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM). It complements but is separate from the state's bioscience initiative; the centerpiece of that undertaking is The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, a nonprofit research institute being built on the campus of the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
Next Generation, proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and approved by the legislature in 2013, has a number of elements. At the flagship campus in Storrs, it includes the hiring of new faculty, the construction of a state-of-the-art laboratory, a STEM residence hall and an honors college residence area.
The plan also includes construction of dormitories and the development of new academic programs in digital media and risk management at the Stamford campus. It funds the move of the department of public policy and the schools of social work and business to downtown Hartford in the fall of 2017. And it sets aside money for the renovation of a dilapidated former Coast Guard barracks in Groton to be used by the university's Avery Point campus.
A key component of the project is joining with Connecticut businesses to develop a technology park in Storrs. UConn already has established several of those relationships, including a $7.5 million partnership with the General Electric Center of Excellence for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing and a $6 million arrangement with the Comcast Center for Computer Security.
"We're very pleased at the amount of industry involvement,'' said Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford. "I think it's precisely what we were looking for, precisely what the state needs. The partnerships you are forming with industry will have tremendous benefits down the road."
Sen. Steve Cassano, the Manchester Democrat who is co-chairman of the higher education committee, praised the effort. But he chided the university for not doing a better job in telling its story to the taxpayers of Connecticut, who are, after all, footing the bill for the ambitious Next Generation program.
"We're going to be asked again, as we are each year, to continue to increase money for UConn, which we can see is being well spent and well needed,'' Cassano told Choi and the other UConn officials seated before him. "My concern is we are not doing the job of letting people know who UConn is … It would make it a lot easier for this building to appropriate the money when people understand what [it's] being spent for. It's not different than buying a house or a car — you look for certain things and if you find quality, you pay for it."
Cassano noted the irony that just about every resident of Connecticut can name UConn's two basketball coaches, but few know the names of the school's top research scientists. "We're not Geno Auriemma, we're not Kevin Ollie,'' he said.
In their presentation, UConn officials noted that since 2011 the university has hired 64 additional faculty members in engineering, 10 in digital media, 25 in biological science, 21 in physical science, 33 in mathematical science and 22 in nursing, and has seen undergraduate enrollment increases in those areas.
Construction is expected to begin in December on a $172.5 million, 113,000-square-foot innovation partnership building and in January on a $92.5 million, 116,000-square-foot engineering and science building.
Lawmakers constantly hear gripes about UConn's ever-growing financial appetite, Cassano said. "If the residents of this state had any idea of one iota of what you showed us today," he said, "maybe that attitude would change ... if they could understand that this could be a future of jobs, a future for their children, a future for the state of Connecticut."
Like her colleagues, Sen. Toni Boucher expressed support for the Next Generation project. But the Wilton Republican also expressed concern about tuition at the university.
"We have really reached a tipping point in our state with regards to access to higher education,'' Boucher said. "With 5 to 6 percent increases in tuition, you add fees on top of that ... you get close to 10 percent increases on a yearly basis. It's not sustainable. With all of this investment that you see, how do we allow those ... who may not come from wealthy families to be able to go to school and take advantage of this tremendous resource?"
Choi said tuition costs are only one measure of college affordability. Other factors include public and private financial aid and making sure enough courses are offered to allow students to graduate on time. And, he said, UConn students graduate with an average debt of $23,000, which is below the national average of $26,000.
But, Choi added, "there's more that we can do as a university ... and the president and the board of trustees are very mindful of the cost of education, and we are taking every opportunity to reduce our expenses and provide more for scholarships."