Board of Trustees talk Torrington campus closure and Chief Diversity Officer hire

Joelle Murchison, currently vice president of enterprise diversity and inclusion at Travelers Insurance Company, speaks during her presentation for Chief Diversity Officer in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. Murchison official hiring was announced at the Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut made a formal recommendation to close the Torrington campus at Wednesday’s academic affairs committee before the Board of Trustees’ Wednesday meeting.

At the same meeting, the Provost Mun Choi announced Joelle Murchison (currently Vice President of Enterprise Diversity & Inclusion at Travelers Insurance) as the university’s selection for Chief Diversity Officer, to start in July.

The Board also discussed a $12,600,000 sale of the West Hartford campus property to Weiming Educational Group, a Chinese company interested in opening an international secondary school on the property. The university was already planning to leave the property for a new Downtown Hartford location expected to open in fall 2017.

The UConn board of trustees originally voted to increase funding by $25 million for the new Hartford branch campus and sell the West Hartford branch campus, effectively moving the branch campus from West Hartford to Hartford, on November 19, 2016. Above is a file photo of the West Hartford branch. (File photo/Daily Campus)

As for reasons to close the Torrington campus, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Sally Reis primarily discussed its declining enrollment and graduation numbers, as well as close proximity to the Waterbury campus, which is only thirty minutes away.

“We just don’t believe it is in the students’ best interests or the university’s best interests in providing the best education to [continue the Torrington campus,]” Reis said.

There are only 88 full-time students enrolled at the Torrington campus, Reis said. Enrollment has continued to decrease over the last few years even while the university put more money in advertising and offered more financial aid to potential students.

Generally, students not accepted at the main campus on Storrs are offered spots at the regional campuses. The number of them putting Torrington as their first choice for a regional campus has also decreased in recent years, Reis said.

The city of Torrington’s mayor, Elinor C. Carbone, spoke criticized the decision.

“We have great concerns as to what effect closing that campus would have on the city of Torrington,” Carbone said.

The mayor added that the university has an obligation to provide the higher education to students in northwest Connecticut.

“We feel over that over the last two decades there has been a benign neglect… an attempt to set the stage for the failure of this campus,” Carbone said.

Former Torrington mayor Mike Conway also criticized the closing.

“I think the (UConn Foundation) has shown more initiative for basketball than the university has shown for the Torrington campus,” Conway said.

Reis said Torrington currently only has 3 full-time faculty members, but that this is the result of small classes.

“Classes are not filled; classes are small,” Reis said. “The faculty still need to teach and that is why they are moved to other campuses.”

Reis referenced university records showing that, of all the students enrolling at Torrington in fall 2008 only six students graduated from the Torrington branch within six years. Only 29 of that cohort starting in fall 2008 graduated from any UConn campus.

Reis referenced high transfer rates out of the Torrington campus. Forty-six percent of Torrington students take classes at other regional campuses or Storrs, Reis said.

Torrington currently has no means to provide for laboratory science class. All Torrington lab science classes take place at Northwestern Connecticut Community College.

“Many of our students, once they see Northwestern, and that it is a robust institution with many students, wind up transferring there,” Reis said.

Individual academic counseling to will be provided for all current students at Torrington, Reis said. Those that aren’t graduating will be offered admission to any regional campus or Storrs.

Reis added that she intends to collaborate with Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and Northwestern. UConn will consider offering a shuttle service three to five times a day to make travel to the Waterbury campus easier for Torrington locals.

“We are living in a time of diminished financial resources and so we need to think strategically,” Provost Choi said.

Negotiations with Weiming for the West Hartford campus property concluded less than 24 hours before the Board of Trustees. Chief Financial Officer Scott Jordan recommended the board authorize the sale.

Under the deal, Weiming would buy the entire property. The university would remain as tenants for $1 per year until they vacated.

“UConn wants to sell. Weiming wants to buy,” Vice President and General Counsel Richard F. Orr said. “Now we need West Hartford’s approval.”

Weiming would give a $500,000 deposit to UConn. If Weiming is not allowed by the city of West Harford to build its proposed international secondary school, or if the property does not meet certain environmental standards, then Weiming would recollect that deposit. If they back out of the deal for other reasons, the university would keep the $500,000.

Orr said he expects the town to approve of the deal and the project for its own financial motivations: the university does not pay taxes on the property, but a private company such as Weiming would.

The new high school would also create jobs, would reduce much of the college-caused traffic in West Hartford and would remain an educational resource.

“The use of the property is essentially an extension of the current use,” Orr added. “It’s an educational property now and it still will be.”

The next Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for April 27. They’re expected to arrive at a final decision on Torrington at that time.


Chris McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.