One characteristic of top-tier public research universities — the Michigans, Virginias, UCLAs — is that they look like top-tier universities. It was once impossible to think of the University of Connecticut ever being in that group, but now it is possible.
UConn 2000 has brought the school much of the way, and the bold new president, Susan Herbst, aims for the summit.
UConn's main campus in Storrs grew quickly and haphazardly after World War II into a sprawling, somewhat incoherent, poorly connected collection of buildings. The UConn 2000 investments of the past 15 years improved the campus considerably, making it more walkable and attractive. It is remarkable how much the campus was improved by removing a road that went through the middle of it.
But there is still room for improvement, if the school is to reach the top rung of public universities, and Ms. Herbst is poised to make those changes.
She has announced that she plans to hire a master planner-architect to develop a new campus plan that will address aesthetics, environmental sustainability, historic preservation and energy efficiency, and make the campus easier for students and visitors to navigate.
A national search has begun to hire the planner, who could be onboard by early fall. The plan may take a year or two. Implementing it will depend on available funding, so it could be a long-term proposition. Nonetheless, the timing is propitious to get it started.
In the short term, the school needs to improve its science laboratories and math facilities. Ms. Herbst plans to bring in 275 new tenure-track faculty in the next four years, some in these disciplines, and they need the facilities in which to work.
"We can only attract the top talent when we have functional space in our buildings," Ms. Herbst said in an email Wednesday. "And we have, as you would with any aging house or building, deferred maintenance — roofs that need repair, crumbling exteriors and walks, and challenging traffic and delivery logistics."
The Courant's Kathleen Megan reported her as saying that the university's math and physics complex is "one of the largest and most problematic buildings on campus, with deterioration all around."
There are also longer-term issues to address. The campus has to become denser, more attractive and user-friendly, a true academic community.
The Storrs Center project, a college-town development on the edge of the campus, will open its first residential buildings this fall. This should get school officials thinking about weaving more housing and retail opportunities into the rest of the campus. Why shouldn't there be housing for junior faculty or senior alumni in the mix?
Also, a new technology campus is planned near the main campus, and it must be designed compatibly with the Storrs campus. The nearby Mansfield Junction campus presents a tremendous opportunity for transit-oriented development. It is on a rail line that goes from New London to Worcester. Creative use of this line could mean affordable housing for UConn students and faculty as well as casino workers and others, and could be a draw for additional economic development.
Hopefully the new plan will look not only at the evolution and maturation of the Storrs campus, but also at how it fits with other UConn facilities around the state. Is it possible to increase the UConn presence in downtown Hartford? Can the Greater Hartford Campus in West Hartford somehow figure into whatever future development takes place at nearby Bishop's Corner?
Connecticut has been very generous, relative to other states, in its support of its state university. If the governor and legislature can keep to the task, the former cow college in the sticks can be an institution that is the envy of the country.