Chris Powell: Why not elect UConn's president and board instead?

Now that the likely Republican nominee, Tom Foley, has assured state employees that he would follow Governor Malloy's generous policies toward them, there's not much point in having an election for governor. The state employees have already won it by forfeit. But since the University of Connecticut has just decided to push its annual budget up to $1.2 billion, an increase of nearly 5 percent, and to raise tuition by more than 4 percent, it would be good if the state could have an election for the university's president and Board of Trustees.

Yes, as UConn officials complain, state government's direct financial support for the university has been declining and as a result tuition increases are as much a decision by the governor and General Assembly as by the university itself.

But behind the political cover of its champion basketball teams UConn long has been building an empire about which there are many compelling questions.

Salaries at UConn are sometimes so spectacular as to be scandalous, from the president's own, $500,000, to the salaries of various UConn employees who get inconvenient notice from time to time, like the police chief, music department dean, and vice president for publicity who lately have been paid nearly a quarter million dollars, far more than the governor is paid for taking nominal responsibility for the whole of state government.

While in raising its budget the university boasted that it is improving its ratio of teachers to students, it did not detail how many of those teachers will be actually teaching rather than pursuing UConn's longtime objective to become “a great research university,” wherein professors get to do whatever they want and needn't bother with mere undergraduates, whose instruction can be left to graduate assistants, some from abroad with impenetrable accents. The university long has been vague about just how much teaching is being done by exactly whom.

Then there's the UConn Foundation, which lately has been keeping two presidents on its payroll, the outgoing one making $484,000 per year as a sort of retirement gift and the new one enjoying a salary that has not been disclosed, apparently because it would risk more criticism. 

In addition, the foundation recently spent $660,000 so the university's president could have not only a mansion in Storrs but also a mansion in Hartford from which she and the university might more easily continue to overawe the governor and state legislators.

That Connecticut knows even this much about the UConn Foundation is only by its permission. The foundation has been exempted from the state's Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that donors might be less generous if the public could find out what they are giving -- information that would involve what they are [ITALICS] getting [END ITALICS] in exchange for their donations, like the dismissal of the university's athletic director three years ago, which happened not long after it was demanded by a big donor who was sore that the athletic director wouldn't heed his advice about the football team.

Two months ago the Senate chairman of the General Assembly's Higher Education Committee, Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, acknowledged UConn's haughtiness, remarking, "We have just as much chance of sitting with the Soviet Union as we do with UConn." Cassano expressed concern about the impending tuition increase and said the university needed to communicate more with the legislature.

But nothing came from that; it was only Cassano's obligatory posturing when he was pressed for comment. He called no hearings. Meanwhile the governor lets UConn do whatever it wants and legislators generally are content if they can have their pictures taken with the basketball players. No one in authority puts any critical question to the university and there's little danger that it will have to answer to anyone soon.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.