University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst told students, faculty and alumni during a forum Monday night in the Next Generation Residence Hall that the university needs to find new and better ways of talking about racial tensions and diversity.
"I think in the next few months, there will be a problematic incident where there is something that either feels like hate speech or is hate speech because racial tensions are so high," she said, responding to Jordane Virgo, a sophomore pre-kinesiology major in Scholars House, a residential community geared toward improving the success of its male African American residents.
She answered questions from a small group of about 30 people while standing against a backdrop of Gampel Pavilion and the nearby soccer field. The room was full of camera equipment, suits and the sound of smooth jazz as participants shuffled in.
Virgo's question was about the way the university would handle or minimize racial tensions in an already tense political climate wrought on by a controversial presidential race. He said Herbst's emphasis on greater dialogue was a step in the right direction, but was somewhat dissatisfied with her answer on what the university itself would do about it.
"That question was tough," Virgo said. "Her answer was kind of vague. She said what students should do, but what about the university?"
Virgo transferred to UConn's main campus in Storrs from the Avery Point regional campus where he said he only had one professor, who was coincidently his first black teacher. Seeing a professor that looked like him, Virgo said, had a huge impact on his decision to stay in college and graduate.
"It's all about representation," Virgo said.
Herbst agreed that the university is not a "bubble" and said that there is a lot of space and freedom on the campus that students and faculty just don't take advantage of.
She asked, "How do you get people to open up to each other?”, but could not give a definitive answer.
Among the topics she was questioned about, Herbst put a strong emphasis on economic activity in the state and the role money plays in shaping the university.
"The best indicator of a university's success is the number of undergraduate applications it gets," she said, highlighting scholarships as her top priority. "Helping a student who can't afford to come to the university come to the university is the best thing you can do."
Dan Byrd, the president of the Undergraduate Student Government, asked what Herbst had planned when it comes to increasing endowment money, which decreases the university’s dependence on state budgets and the negative impacts of a risky economy.
“We are a relatively new research university,” she said, adding that UConn was founded as a small agricultural school and only recently has the university started fundraising as a top institution. “Our endowment is tiny for a place this size.”
The fact that STEM has been a focal point for much of the university’s operations did not escape the discourse. Herbst said STEM majors cost money and bring in money, whereas humanities, for example, does not cost much and does not bring a lot of money to the university.
“We hope to invent,” Herbst said, referring to the increase in the STEM funding and infrastructure at UConn. “Put revenue where it generates revenue.”
Other points of conversation included regional campuses. Herbst said the new downtown Hartford branch of UConn is on schedule and on budget for opening next summer.
“We will be bringing thousands of faculty, staff and students to downtown Hartford,” she said. “It is built to be an integrated part of Hartford.”
When asked about residence halls on the Avery Point regional campus, Herbst said the university does not have money to move forward with such a project unless a developer offers to step in and build housing for students. A new residence hall will open on the Stamford location and another will be built on the Waterbury campus, she said. Both are going to be built by developers.
With a growing and increasingly STEM focused university, one student continues to feel anxiety about his future.
Dhruv Shah is a sophomore molecular cell biology major unsure of what to do after graduating.
“I’m worried about not being able to find a job with my degree,” he said.
Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.