Updated at 9:27 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 10, 2016.
HARTFORD — Nearly 50 University of Connecticut students packed into the legislative office building at the state capitol and called on legislators to reconsider funding cuts to the university during an appropriations committee hearing Wednesday night.
UConn and UConn Health are facing a combined $31.2 million in cuts under Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed state budget, which has left a number of administrators and students concerned about the university’s already sizable budget gap.
“I ask the committee to reconsider any cuts to UConn when Connecticut needs excellent students in its workforce now more than ever,” said Rachel Conboy, president of UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government, during the hearing. “What will the state lose if the university is forced to cut back? Can the state afford to drain resources from one of the most iconic pieces of Connecticut’s identity?"
Legislators heard testimony from more than a dozen current UConn students as well as members of the university’s faculty.
Conboy said she and external affairs committee chairman Dan Byrd organized the caravan in an effort to show committee members how strongly they believe the university needs to maintain its current funding levels and avoid another tuition hike.
UConn President Susan Herbst presented testimony to the committee Wednesday morning, telling legislators the university is “up against a financial wall.”
“There is no university that cuts its way to success,” Herbst said. “Being more efficient is critical. But cutting costs is sometimes another way of saying we are doing less of something we should be doing more of.”
Herbst acknowledged the fiscal reality the state faces – a nearly $570 million budget gap – and said she does not “foresee the operating funds ever reaching their original projections” in the $1.5 billion Next Generation Connecticut program.
She said the university plans to adjust its enrollment projections in the coming years to account for the coming funding gaps. UConn has already seen a 46 percent increase in enrollment since 2000, Herbst said.
However, Herbst said if state funding cuts continue at the rate they have – $139 million over the last seven years – the university will have to consider raising tuition again or closing branch campuses.
This has many students worried about what it will mean for UConn in the long term.
“Not only programs being cut, but tuition being raised is a huge concern,” Conboy said. “I think last time (in December) we said, ‘OK, we understand this position we’re in,’ but if tuition gets raised again, that’s an issue. Students are struggling to pay. But I think the legislators heard us out today.”
Two members of Mansfield’s legislative delegation, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, sit on the appropriations committee and found the testimony “compelling.”
Flexer said legislators need to do everything they can to restore as much of the funding as possible that has been slashed in the governor’s proposed budget.
“I don’t know that we’ll get all of it,” Flexer said. “I think we need to advocate to get close to all of it back, because UConn has already been making its budget more lean in recent years while at the same time expanding key programs.”
Haddad said he did not “see the political will” among legislators to “do what’s necessary to prevent any cut at all.” He said the legislature should consider “broad-based revenue changes” despite the governor taking the option of increasing taxes off the table.
With tax increases on the table, Haddad said, it would be possible “to find a path” to eliminating the entirety of the funding cut. But as of now, Haddad said legislators’ options are “severely limited” by the governor’s insistence on no revenue options.
Student testimony during the hearing provided legislators with varied stories about how university resources made a difference during their time at UConn.
Rosse Gates, an eighth-semester mechanical engineering major and entrepreneur, discussed how an IDEA Grant allowed him to form the basis of a start-up company – a company he hopes to expand in Connecticut in the years to come.
“The fact that UConn allowed me to start my own business has completely altered my course after graduation,” Gates told legislators. “Instead of working in Massachusetts, where I received a corporate job offer, I’ll be staying in Connecticut to run my start-up. I’ll be looking for part-time employment at an employer that will put my engineering and leadership skills to good use.”
UConn women’s basketball stars Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck both testified, telling legislators that maintaining the university’s funding at its current level is essential to ensuring future student athletes have access to the same academic and athletic resources they receive now.
Representing concerns from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, Bridget Oei told legislators she chose UConn because she wanted “to carve (her) own path” through research opportunities.
Oei received a research grant from the university to begin developing a “biomedical renewable energy device that could power cardiac pacemakers.” The research seemed to be a perfect fit for the third-semester environmental science and pre-med double major, but she said future research could be in jeopardy if the funding cuts are enacted.
“Without this support from UConn, I would not have been able to see the potential my device has in the medical field,” Oei told legislators. “I think I can speak for all UConn students when I say that we are not just asking for your fiscal support, but also for the confidence in us, the UConn students, that goes with financial support.”