Colleges Define Different Market Niches

U. of Connecticut seeks to balance research, teaching, and community service in a broad academic program

WITH its handsome brick buildings, rolling green lawns, and picturesque duck ponds, the University of Connecticut at Storrs looks like an idealized image of an institution of higher learning.

But the placid facade hides a host of problems, ranging from state budget cutbacks to grumbling among students that professors don't teach enough courses.

The difficulties at UConn today reflect the larger dilemmas confronting American higher education - just as the university's history of almost nonstop expansion mirrored the once-boundless horizons of US higher education.

The school began life in 1881 with a dozen students and a mission to "train the sons of Connecticut farmers." While it became the University of Connecticut in 1939, the institution did not witness explosive growth until after World War II.

Fueled by the GI Bill, enrollment grew from 1,735 in 1943 to 7,265 in 1947. Today it enrolls 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students on several satellite campuses besides the main facility in Storrs.

The number of programs also has multiplied exponentially. Agriculture, once the university's focus, has become only one of many schools and colleges. Today, UConn offers 99 undergraduate majors - including the country's only puppetry program - and boasts separate schools of law and medicine.

"Our mission hasn't changed - it's still teaching, research, and service to community," says university President Harry Hartley, sitting in an armchair in his luxurious office. "But the way in which we achieve our mission has changed."

Administrators here are proud of the fact that UConn is the only first-rate public research university in New England. But like virtually all research universities, UConn has been criticized for neglecting one of its vital missions - undergraduate education.

Students here complain that professors teach lower-division lecture classes with hundreds of students. "Discussion and lab sections are taught by TA's [teaching assistants], some of whom don't know what they're talking about," says Annique Nonnon, a junior communications major.

In an effort to correct that problem, the university is launching a "teaching excellence initiative" that will - in theory, at least - give pedagogical prowess greater weight in faculty hiring decisions. Traditionally, success in publishing scholarly articles has determined who gets hired and tenured.

To deal with a $47.3 million cutback in its state budget, UConn has been forced to eliminate 484 jobs since 1989 - mainly through forced retirements. Several small programs have been trimmed or combined, and many others are being considered for elimination in the future. Tuition has gone up 60 percent in four years.

Students here complain that too many of the cuts have been directed at undergraduate education, not faculty research.

"Last semester I only got two out of the four courses I needed to graduate on time," says Sandy Payne, a junior business administration major. "Too many people are trying to get into too few classes." Like many other students, Mr. Payne will not be able to complete his education in four years.

To stave off even deeper cuts, UConn administrators find they have to convince an increasingly skeptical state legislature why the taxpayers' money should be spent on the school.

To make that case, President Hartley argues that the university can be "a partner with the governor, the legislature, and corporations to position Connecticut economically for the year 2000."

One example of that partnership is a new UConn program to develop innovative approaches to precision manufacturing of machine tools. The research is being funded by grants from the state and federal governments and from United Technologies Corp., the largest company in the state. "That's the model," Hartley says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.