In saving UConn Torrington, is litigation necessary?

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Almost since its inception in 1965, the main campus in Storrs, Connecticut, has sought to shut down the Torrington Campus of the University of Connecticut. Through the years unsupported and disparaging comments from those same faraway administrators would filter back that somehow the University branch system did not measure up to the academic standards of the main campus in Storrs. Then, suddenly in early March, the people in the Northwestern Connecticut were given a few weeks to react to the impending permanent closing of the Torrington Branch, forestalling any attempt to honestly and fairly discuss and dissent from this decision.

It is difficult to obtain actual facts from the University officials, other than reading published comments in newspapers and television newscasts. Even these are confusing and at times contradictory. And this from an institution of higher learning that purports to embrace research and supporting data.

The following has been gleaned from public media:

Enrollment

In a January 2015 local newspaper, the Associate Director at the Torrington Branch stated, “the campus had about 191 students enrolled for the fall 2014 semester, a slight decrease from the fall 2013 semester, which had a little over 200 students enrolled.”

Recently, UConn Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Dr. Sally M. Reis revealed fall 2012 enrollment was 249, and the most recent fall 2015 enrollment was 153 students. Reis additionally remarked at the board meeting on March 30 that the declining enrollment “is a function of how many students are graduating from local high schools,” without providing corroborating data. Even with possible current declines, at the height of past Torrington Campus enrollments, weren’t the populations of the high schools also smaller? Forty years later, my regional high school graduating class is about the same as today.

The Torrington Campus enrolls many students who take a few years off after high school (as I did) and many adults returning for a university degree. The university has not provided a breakdown of the make-up of the student body over the past few years, e.g., what towns students reside in, what ages, who drops out, who transfers to other branches or the main campus, who transfers out of state, etc.

What were their “best efforts,” (the money quote) to increase enrollment (as repeated time and again these past few weeks)?

Leadership

The most successful periods in the history of the UConn Torrington Campus occurred when there were two long-term academics who lived within the community and participated and promoted events both on and off campus. In July 2013, William J. Pozzuto was made Interim Director, and permanent Campus Director three months later in October. At that time he also held the position of Campus Director at the UConn Waterbury Branch, which he retained.

“He goes back and forth [between the two campuses],” the program assistant to the Director stated in an October 2013 profile. “He has one dedicated day at Torrington every week. He works on economic development and tries to be available whenever he’s needed.”

That same newspaper article stated that Pozzuto has been full-time at both campuses, which on its face is an impossibility. Pozzuto is also a volunteer and very active in many community organizations in Waterbury, so it is curious as to how he divided his time. No information has been provided as to whether the one-day a week was a full day, or only an hour or two, or how many events and Northwest corner local activities he attended or participated in?

“To attract students, Torrington has been working to get the word out through email, letters, making phone calls and other marketing methods,” the local newspaper reported. Seriously? What was the advertising budget? Visit the town halls, schools and post offices throughout the Northwest corner … do we see any brochures or promotions? What has been the actual expense and where are the reports on these efforts?

It can be argued that the conflict of interest and dual role clearly incentivized the goal of closing the Torrington Campus to increase that of Waterbury.

Location

“Waterbury is a half an hour away and we believe that we can make the transition a smooth one for our students and do what is in the best interest of our students,” said Reis at the Board meeting March 3.

Waterbury may be a half hour away from central Torrington, but it is not from the many rural and hilly towns in Northwestern Connecticut. Such a myopic view of commuting is the same one that discounts the needs and reality of the people who live and work here. The UConn Torrington has a fabulous and appealing under-appreciated campus, with many expansion and collaborative possibilities, and if it closes there will be only Northwestern Community College in Winsted.

Waterbury has two universities and a community college. Again, what towns are current students from, who will be impacted most?

Where is the data to support the movement to Waterbury? Won’t students simply drop out? How many have gone and will go to West Hartford/Hartford or Waterbury? Or Storrs? Another throwaway remark without supporting data.

Academics

This is difficult to address, because the administrators in Storrs send out conflicting statements, again without supporting data … just anecdotal comments. An October 2013 profile reported, “The faculty at the smaller branches also teaches at the main branch in Storrs. Students are also able to enjoy smaller class sizes with a 10 to 1 student to teacher ratio at Torrington with class sizes of around 15 to 20 students.”

Now two and a half years later there’s something horrific about small class size? What is the smallest class, largest, average? Again, no data provided for analysis. And what is a “filled” class?

The same instructors teach at all campuses, including Storrs. So the instruction can’t be inferior … they’d be damning themselves. Have instructors or professors complained of the small class size? Do faculty concur with the negative comments on academic quality? And where is the data that supports the remark by Reis that “this is about academic quality as much as anything else,” or is this just a personal opinion? How many tenured track professors are located at the other branches? Aren’t they mostly in Storrs?

Money

This is the strangest issue of all. Although our legislature has been making difficult budget choices, by default the steep cutback of funds to UConn seems to be the implied impetus behind the necessary Torrington campus closure. But the actions and remarks by UConn administrative officials undercut their own arguments.

“The branch neither loses nor gains money, with a goal of remaining neutral,” remarked the new Campus Director Pozzuto (Register Citizen 10/2013). At the board meeting earlier this month in Storrs it was reported the Torrington branch may need up to $9 million in capital improvements, over the next 10 years (again no data provided). Roberta Willis, one of our most active local state representatives, reported that the current budget at Torrington reflects only an $80,000 shortfall.

Thus, it does not appear that the proposed closing of the UConn Torrington Branch has anything to do with the current budget woes at the state capitol! Even Vice Provost Reis has been widely reported as stating “this is not just about financial resources,” but it apparently isn’t about financial resources at all. Meanwhile on that same day, March 30, they supported a $10 million expenditure for a new athletic roof.

So yes, there may be future financial issues related to capital improvements and standard maintenance, but this is entirely dependent on the choices made at the end of April.

In Closing

It was heartening to read of the Torrington community and political readers who made the trek on March 30 to vehemently protest the proposed closing on such short notice. But it was equally disheartening to read of other political leaders who are just so exhausted and tired of the continual fight, even though being assured again and again and year after year that the UConn Torrington would never close, while behind the scenes management has been squandering and ruining the gift to our community from Julia Brooker Thompson.

This wonderful benefactor gifted an institution of higher education to the Northwest corner. If UConn officials cannot provide a qualified and committed leadership to embrace her vision (as it has only done twice in the past 50 years), then the only probable result may be to litigate the matter and solicit offers to have another university or four year institution take over that role and provide the enthusiasm, creativity, experience, and rigor that seems to be so sorely lacking in the present circumstances and UConn officials.

Please sign the wonderful petition and write to the Board of Trustees, Gov. Dannel Malloy, and your local representatives to oppose the loss of this special gem in our community.

 

What do you think?

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