The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Higher education’s budgetary surprise

- Jonathan L. Wharton COMMENTARY Jonathan L. Wharton is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticu­t State University in New Haven.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget was officially left to our state’s General Assembly lawmakers a couple of weeks ago. The state’s public higher education funding gained notable attention, just as pandemic federal funds come to an end. For our state’s executive officials to change course appears problemati­c — as were threats by higher ed officials, students and lawmakers. Testy exchanges should be expected when Connecticu­t’s future is in the hands of public officials. As Dan Haar offered, “The numbers tell two stories.”

As an educator teaching at Southern Connecticu­t State University and often at Gateway Community College, I have been part of budgetary cuts and contract bonuses to retain faculty and administra­tors. Recruitmen­t, retention and competitio­n are critical issues at our public institutio­ns for students as well as educators.

But many confuse our Connecticu­t State Colleges and Universiti­es with the University of Connecticu­t, even though they’re all public institutio­ns. UConn operates separately and very differentl­y than the CSCU system.

In fact, our dozen community colleges will be merging and transition­ing to Connecticu­t State Community College in the fall. And CSCU unveiled a bold CSCU 2030 proposal last month to advocate for future community college and regional funding and bonding. Enrollment numbers have been and will be an ongoing concern because there are fewer Connecticu­t traditiona­l-age students.

Regional state universiti­es like Western Connecticu­t State University have thousands fewer students than a few years ago and are facing significan­t budgetary problems. University presidents testified before the General Assembly’s Appropriat­ions Committee last week that Lamont’s proposed budget would underfunde­d nearly $170 million next year and over $283 million in 2025.

Meanwhile, UConn has undergone some change with several presidents in recent years as their board of trustees remains highly political with their longtime member, alumnus and former Speaker of the Connecticu­t House of Representa­tives Thomas Ritter. With a former university president suddenly leaving for the private sector and the president prior facing trustee scrutiny over university scholarshi­ps, recently appointed President Radenka Maric has some mighty political shoes to wear.

So, it was interestin­g timing that Maric responded to Lamont’s UConn budget lines with $160 million less funding because of federal pandemic funds ending. She threatened a $3,000 tuition increase (as students are paying tuition increases over the next couple of years) and end basketball and hockey games at downtown Hartford’s XL Center. Student government leaders also led hundreds of students and UConn’s live-playing marching band to last Wednesday’s campus walk-out and Capitol rally. Lamont said that UConn students were receiving “misinforma­tion” about the budget since federal pandemic funds end this year.

Ritter’s son, UConn alumnus and House Speaker Matthew Ritter of Hartford, replied to Maric’s threats that maintainin­g the XL Center’s agreement is critical since fans frequent downtown businesses. He later responded Maric’s threats were a mistake, “but is all is forgiven. We move on.” Even the General Assembly’s Appropriat­ions Committee chair, Toni Walker, added that Maric “is new.”

The scuttlebut­t made headlines and Maric had a revealing interview with Hearst’s Mike Anthony that she faced various political and legal considerat­ions and even changed course about UConn athletics.

Unfortunat­ely, Lamont and executive officials failed to communicat­e that public higher education was expected to have lessened federal funding. It’s no secret our public institutio­ns are economic engines for the state and the majority of public college students stay here after they graduate. As a double Ivy League alumnus, Lamont never attended a state college. But he’s taught at Central Connecticu­t State University for years so he has firsthand knowledge about our state’s public higher education. At least our lawmakers can amend Lamont’s proposed budget instead of offering him a “Ritter pass.”

 ?? Emily DiSalvo/Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? University of Connecticu­t student Eli Collins poses with their sign featuring Gov. Ned Lamont at a rally in support of “fully funding” UConn held last week.
Emily DiSalvo/Hearst Connecticu­t Media University of Connecticu­t student Eli Collins poses with their sign featuring Gov. Ned Lamont at a rally in support of “fully funding” UConn held last week.
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