UConn should recognize what has happened on their land

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Nature takes over a window of a building in UConn's Depot Campus.    File photo/The Daily Campus

Nature takes over a window of a building in UConn’s Depot Campus.

File photo/The Daily Campus

If you’ve attended events at the Dodd Center or public events held by university officials since early 2019, you may have heard something new before anything begins: A land acknowledgement. The announcement aims to educate the listeners about the history of the land they’re sitting/standing on: How it was violently stolen from indigenous peoples by white colonists and how the relationship between native peoples and land endures today. It’s an important and necessary reflection on the deplorable treatment of a specific group of people for years, only for the crimes to be swept under the rug and not talked about again, because “things are better now.”  

While this is a narrow and oversimplified explanation of such an immense struggle, I word it that way because I believe that UConn can expand this recognition even further.   

If you don’t play a club sport, haven’t been to the outdoors Four Arrows activity or aren’t aware of what the Surplus Store is, you probably don’t have a clue as to what Depot Campus is—or where it even is, for that matter. Accessible by its own designated bus line, Depot is, in short, 350 acres of land owned by the university. It currently houses the Club Sports Complex, the old building of the Ballard Institute, various cabins repurposed as labs or offices, a renewable energy center, and more. The most notorious part, however, is the tens of dilapidated buildings that used to belong to an institution known as the Mansfield Training School.   

Founded in 1860 as the state-run Connecticut School for Imbeciles, its name was later changed to the Connecticut Training School for the Feebleminded in 1915. Two years later, it merged with the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics—founded in 1910—and adapted its current name. As it was open during the Great Depression and World War II, it saw much use and demand for its services: Meaning overcrowding, long waitlists and a need for more staff. At the height of its use in 1969, it housed 1,600 patients; then during the 70s and 80s, these patients were relocated to group homes around the state, or on-campus cottages. By 1991, there were only 141 residents left. 

Various lawsuits and abuse allegations came about in the early 90s, and the school ultimately closed in 1993. Some rundown buildings were demolished; the rest, however, were split between UConn and a correctional institution. 

What’s left on Depot property isn’t well-kept at all, despite the Training School’s recognition as significant by the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The university is stuck in limbo: renovations would be dangerous, extremely expensive and time-consuming — especially given all the other construction to be completed on campus by 2035 — but bulldozing the buildings is equally as unsafe and time-consuming, and would be in violation of its designation as a historic site. So for now, the buildings sit: Abandoned, graffitied, asbestos-ridden and lonely. The public is forbidden by law to enter, and according to University Spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, some buildings are so dangerous that they are even closed off to fire and building inspectors — unless there is an active emergency, like the small fire that occurred last February.   

History aside, you may be asking: What does this have to do with land acknowledgement? My idea—and informal request to the university, if they happen to be reading—is as follows: To have the university create a land recognition statement about the land they own that housed a facility which tortured people with mental illness. The 60s were of course a complicated era for psychology, as philosophy and methodology was changing the way that mentally ill patients received care; and although things are “better now,” it’s irresponsible and revisionist to erase this shameful past of the state-run Training School.  

I have a great-uncle with schizophrenia and a whole host of other mental illnesses who attended the School during his adolescence into his early teens. Although he now struggles with dementia and is unable to even remember who I am most days, my grandmother — his sister — tells me that those few years were the most traumatic of his 80-plus years of life. As I mentioned before, this clearly also was the case with some other patients — so much so that they decided to take legal action.  

While the treatment of the mentally ill is in no way comparable to the treatment of Native peoples, both are despicable behavior that we ought to be ashamed of. UConn has taken a correct step forward by acknowledging the origin of the land that it was founded on; now, it’s time to take that a step further by recognizing the land — that has been university property for more than 20 years — that the university bought.  


Liz Collins is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at elizabeth.collins@uconn.edu.

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