UConn Students, Faculty Protest Proposed Budget Cuts At Rallies In Storrs, Farmington

UConn students and faculty rallied Wednesday evening to protest a Republican-proposed state budget that the school says would cut $300 million over two years and damage the standing of the state's flagship university.

They packed into Hugh S. Greer Field House in Storrs, clutching placards that read "Don't Ruin UConn" and "Invest In Our Futures," and listened as student leaders and state legislators railed against the Republican-proposed budget which passed both the House and Senate Saturday. The crowd, which UConn's fire marshal estimated at 1,000, rained boos as Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, ran down a laundry list of things the school says could be cut or scaled back: research programs, Division I athletic teams, financial aid and scholarship funds.

President Susan Herbst said Tuesday the proposed budget would cut UConn's state funding by 20 percent in the current fiscal year and by 29 percent in fiscal year 2019, according to an in-house analysis.

Republican leaders have disputed those findings, saying their budget would cut $200 million to the school over two years and reduce state funding by 16 percent.

They have also argued that the school can make up lost funding through alumni support, federal funding and the UConn Foundation — a luxury not available to people dependent on social services, they said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has vowed to veto the budget, calling it "devastating to our flagship university."

Just last week, UConn vaulted to 18th on the U.S. News and World Report's ranking of public universities, its highest-ever rung on the list.

Students at the rally said that progress would be swiftly undone by the proposed cuts.

"It was everywhere; everyone was was talking about it, posting about it," Wawa Gatheru, a sophomore from Pomfret, said of the ranking. "And in the wake of that, the fact that the proposed budget cuts came so quickly, seems disheartening. UConn students work so hard to improve their school … and that's what we get in response."

One measure in the Republican budget would require professors to teach an additional course for savings of $10.4 million.

Philosophy professor Lionel Shapiro said the cuts, coupled with the burden of teaching an extra class, would "change the fundamental nature of the university," and could lead to "a large exodus of the most successful faculty." Professors would have less time to prepare for classes and less time for research, he said; the quality of instruction would suffer, and their research would too.

"It would change the content of the teaching that we do," he said. "It would not just increase the amount of teaching, but it would change the nature of it."

For Sebastien Kerr, who received both a Hartford Promise scholarship and financial aid from UConn, the proposed cuts — which Herbst said could affect financial aid awards — felt like a betrayal.

"We were promised that money when we signed up to be here," he said. "In high school I worked very hard, because I knew if I had a 3.0 I could go anywhere in the country … this budget goes against exactly what I was told when I was younger."

Kerr, who is black, said the cuts would disproportionately affect minority students, many of whom receive financial aid.

"Diversity would be obliterated," he said.

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, a UConn alum herself, spoke at the rally and said she was a first-generation college student who was only able to graduate because of Pell Grants and financial aid.

"This is an institution that's publicly supported," she said, "and the budget that passed Saturday morning, at 3:30 in the morning, tells kids who grew up in a family like mine, 'Nope, you can't come here anymore. You're just not going to be able to afford it.'"

UConn students plan to rally outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford at noon Friday to protest the budget.

In Farmington, medical and dental students, faculty, and administrators at UConn Health rallied in response to the Republican-designed budget Wednesday afternoon, drawing in about 100 people and bringing doctors out of their labs, executives out of their offices, and students out of their libraries to urge a political response.

"Call your state representatives, tell them what these cuts mean to UConn, you, and your families. Urge them to not approve any budget that would not restore [the funding to UConn]," said Adam Bartholomeo, president of UConn Medical-Dental's student government. "Tell them to come on down to Farmington and see what UConn Health has to offer."

"Our students and residents come here. They look to our surgeons, physicians, [and] dentists as role models… That role model is invaluable," Dr. Bruce Liang, the dean of the medical school, said at the rally. "I have already written to my legislators and I've been on the phone the last couple of nights and days and I will continue to do that. I urge you all to speak up because what we do here is very important."

UConn Health CEO Dr. Andy Agwunobi credited the legislature and governor for supporting the organization's development in the past, but argued that UConn shouldn't be thrust with such drastic cuts. "Yes, like many institutions across the country and in the state of Connecticut, there are financial challenges. But you don't walk away from this kind of an investment that has taken decades to build," he said. "It may take various strategies to get through the rough patches but we will get through that and continue this legacy."

Purven Parikh, a first-year medical student and a Wethersfield native, said he chose to attend UConn Health because of its focus on patient care.

"We've been here for a month but everything that we're learning has been toward that one goal. To cut upwards of $300 million from our budget would destroy graduate programs, it would destroy this fantastic institution and deprive people of care that they need and deserve," he said. "To take away all of that, that's just not fair."

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