STEPHEN SINGER,Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The agenda is growing so long for officials at the University of Connecticut that the Board of Trustees has added meetings to keep up with the workload.
Susan Herbst, who became president of Connecticut’s flagship state university in June 2011, is moving on several fronts to boost UConn to the top ranks of state universities. Priorities include hiring more faculty, building an on-campus retail, residential and office park and a technology complex in addition to a biomedical research center.
Herbst said UConn, perhaps best known for its men’s and women’s basketball programs, aspires to be recognized amid top state universities such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin.
“Right now, we’re a great, comprehensive research university,” she said. “My goal is to put it in the top sphere.”
Herbst, a political scientist who has written about civility in politics, has strong backing in Connecticut, but it’s not unanimous. State Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Senate Republican on the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, criticized the 2011 tuition hike approved by UConn’s Board of Trustees to back Herbst’s hiring plans.
“Tuition increases have been too high for students and parents to handle and sustain,” she said.
The increases, approved in December 2011, amounted to 17 percent over four years. The annual cost of attending UConn will go from $21,720 for Connecticut residents in 2011 to $25,518 in 2016. Out-of-state students would go from paying $38,616to $47,070.
State Sen. Beth Bye, Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said by tackling the tuition increase soon after taking UConn’s top job, Herbst acted at just the right time.
“I’d say she went for that in her honeymoon,” she said. “I think she was pretty strategic taking that on early.”
The tuition increase is expected to raise about $50 million to hire more faculty. But they won’t just be teaching classes, Herbst said. They’ll be expected to bring in needed revenue by increasing research that could reap corporate and government grants.
“It’s not just hiring a lot of faculty to put in the classroom,” she said.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said universities have been squeezed during the recession and weak economic recovery by state budget cuts and reduced donations. UConn joins other universities seeking new ways to raise revenue, she said.
Stephen Petkis, president of the Undergraduate Student Government, credits Herbst for communicating the need for higher tuition. However, unlike California and North Carolina where tuition increases were greeted by protests last year, students in Connecticut were largely apathetic, he said.
“She’s been pretty responsive to any complaints or concerns we brought to her,” said.
Other issues lower on the marquee also claim Herbst’s attention. UConn is reviewing choices that could produce 2 million gallons of water a day to keep up with growth in the next 50 years at the university and nearby Mansfield. And the university wants to relocate its West Hartford campus to downtown to be closer to state government and avoid millions in renovation costs.
UConn’s athletic programs remain a priority for Herbst. She was actively involved in efforts to move UConn from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which ultimately failed when Louisville went instead, becoming the fifth football member to leave the Big East in about a year. With ACC membership fluid, UConn could again compete if an opening is available.
But Herbst said the school’s mission is teaching, not sports.
“We are a comprehensive research university with a very fine athletic department,” she said. “The focus of this university is academics and research.”
Lawrence D. McHugh, chairman of the Board of Trustees, says he speaks with Herbst or her chief of staff three times a week. “We’ve had a lot on our plates,” he said.
The trustees have increased the number of meetings to eight a year, from six or seven because “there’s so much stuff going on,” McHugh said.
“Big East to the tech center to getting water up there, there’s all sorts of stuff,” he said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.