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Date Posted: 10:39:41 09/19/05 Mon
Subject: UConn's Home Advantage
I can't help but raise this issue yet again. When will the CSU system speak up and ask for more funding directly from UConn's piece of the pie?
Alumni In Legislature May Temper Response To Problems
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
Capitol Bureau Chief
September 19 2005
Everyone from Gov. M. Jodi Rell to the state auditors has criticized the University of Connecticut for major fire and safety code violations in its massive construction program.
Now, it's up to the state legislature to decide whether to impose its own restrictions or sanctions on a building program plagued by cost overruns and what Rell called "an astounding failure of oversight and management."
But some lawmakers wonder whether anything will be done, considering the built-in cheering section that UConn has at the Capitol. Fourteen of the 36 state senators attended UConn, as did 38 House members - by far the largest alumni ranks of any college in the legislature.
When spouses and children who attend or work at the university are added in, the ties are even stronger.
Legislators frequently attend UConn games and they deliver standing ovations when the men's and women's basketball teams visit the Capitol for the annual Husky Day celebration. With that atmosphere as a backdrop, many lawmakers are reluctant to publicly criticize the home team.
"We in this state have a lot of wannabes - people who want to be a part of it by just going to a game," said Rep. William R. Dyson of New Haven, the longest-serving House Democrat. "They don't want to hear any negative stuff. In light of that, who's going to step out and lead the charge? Who's going to rain on that parade? Who's crazy enough to do that?"
In a building known for press conferences on virtually any issue, legislators have avoided rushing to the microphones to criticize UConn or to call for a legislative inquiry. In addition, Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking senator, said he sees no immediate need for a special session and that any legislation regarding UConn could be considered when the regular session starts next February.
In a scathing report issued Sept. 1, a commission appointed by Rell stated that school administrators kept critical audits from being released publicly and held secret meetings in an effort to keep UConn trustees and legislators in the dark about the deficiencies.
Even so, UConn still maintains a deep reservoir of goodwill at the Capitol - a distinction that ensured previous legislative victories for the state's flagship university. The biggest boost was approval of the UConn 2000 program, one of the biggest spending projects in state history, which includes $1 billion for construction and more than $1 billion more in interest costs. That approval was followed by another $1.3 billion for construction in the 21st Century program.
Earlier this year, lawmakers and the university beat back a proposal to audit the ever-growing UConn Foundation Inc., a private entity that raises money on behalf of the university. In a David vs. Goliath effort against one of the Capitol's strongest lobbying forces, Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, was the sole sponsor of a bill seeking greater financial scrutiny of the foundation. After a tie vote in one committee and passage in another, the bill died on the House calendar in June when the legislative session ended. While Rell said that more sunshine on the foundation's books was a good idea, some lawmakers said that auditing $54 million in public matching funds was an unnecessary intrusion into a private entity and could eventually hurt the university's fundraising efforts.
But Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the government administration and elections committee who temporarily resurrected the bill in his committee, rejected the notion that greater scrutiny could have a chilling effect on donations. Caruso says the legislature must place more restrictions on UConn to prevent a repeat of the budget overruns and widespread fire and safety code violations at university buildings.
"For too long, we've treated the University of Connecticut as the [state's] 170th town," Caruso said. "No entity of the state should feel they are separate from the state or have a unique distinction. The university has acted as a separate town, and frankly, it's because we've permitted that. ... We need to correct this, and now is the time."
Saying he believes that "alumni of UConn would want to set the ship straight," Caruso called upon legislators to address the issue directly and make changes. Caruso's concerns about a lack of oversight were ignored during his speech on the House floor three years ago when he was one of the few legislators who voted against the 21st Century UConn plan.
"If we were to give them another penny without making radical changes, we would be saying to the voters, `We don't care about your money,"' Caruso said. "I haven't seen heads roll over at that university."
But Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who received a master's degree in English and a law degree from UConn, said he is not sure whether legislative action is needed.
"Despite these problems, we're very proud of UConn," said Looney, a key player in setting the agenda in the state Senate. "It has become a much more nationally prominent state university - not just because of the sports programs in men's and women's basketball, but also academically in terms of the number of valedictorians and salutatorians who are now attending the university. ... We're very, very proud of what the university has done."
Regardless of problems - including a lack of sprinklers in the attic of a 656-student dormitory that has necessitated a 24-hour fire watch - Looney said there is still tremendous goodwill among lawmakers for UConn. Legislators have "absolutely not" gone sour on the university, he said.
While UConn's alumni support at the Capitol has been present for decades, the support exploded after the women's basketball team won the national championship in 1995. Soon after, the UConn 2000 program was approved - after being shepherded by the university's biggest supporter at the Capitol, then-House Speaker Thomas Ritter, D-Hartford.
A graduate of the law school, Ritter played a key role in persuading Gov. John G. Rowland, a Villanova University graduate, to jump on the UConn bandwagon. Without crucial support from the governor, anything costing $1 billion would have had a difficult time passing through the Senate, which was controlled at the time by Republicans. Years later, Rowland appointed Ritter a UConn trustee.
Acknowledging UConn's recent lapses, Ritter said the trustees, legislators and alumni want improvements to be made in the UConn 2000 program, which he views as largely successful.
"At least the people I talk to are very proud of what has happened," Ritter said. "Their support for UConn hasn't waned, but they certainly want [the problems] corrected."
Even with the traditionally strong support, some legislators said they are not prepared to send more money to UConn to repair the fire-code and safety violations that have been widely reported in the media. They said UConn would be smart not to ask for any more money.
UConn has no plans to seek additional funding from the legislature, but is instead seeking money or free repairs from contractors involved in the building program, said Karen Grava, the university spokeswoman. For example, UConn spent $14.9 million for repairs at the 14-building Hilltop Apartments complex this summer and is now in mediation in an attempt to recover that money from Alabama-based Capstone Development Corp.
"We are aggressively going after the contractor," Grava said, adding that mediation is the first step rather than filing a lawsuit. "We're assuming we're going to recover this from the contractor."
The 24-hour fire watch at the Charter Oak Suites, which began Aug. 29, costs about $20,000 a week, and the school is working with the contractor to resolve the situation there, she said.
Even some alumni, however, say the deficiencies are so severe that the legislature needs to take action. Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, who received a master's degree in social work at UConn, said the legislature should convene in special session to immediately address the issue, and the state public works department should be placed back in charge to oversee the construction.
Prague praised the student newspaper for recently calling upon President Philip E. Austin to resign because of the lack of oversight, adding that the board of trustees should never have publicly supported Austin as they did in August.
"You can be a big supporter of UConn, but you have to be absolutely appalled at how they handled this," Prague said. "I don't have a lot of faith in that board of trustees that came out and supported Austin. Give me a break - to support a president who didn't even know what was going on on his campus? Why defend him under these circumstances?"
Austin has declined to comment on the student newspaper's editorial, but the trustees have backed him in spite of the revelations.
Some lawmakers have cautioned that legislators should not forget that UConn 2000 has been successful in pushing the university to the next level in the academic world.
"Overall, the record of new construction at UConn is a positive one," Williams said. "Unfortunately, in pursuing an accelerated pace of construction, they dropped the ball. What we need is not simply an oversight board. The focus needs to be on independent inspectors who report to an independent board."
Williams noted that UConn supporters have complained regularly through the years that the legislature has failed to give the university additional operating funds to help with the annual budget and keep tuition costs low.
"It's not that UConn gets whatever it asks for," Williams said.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant
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