Hundreds of UConn students and staff rallied Wednesday at the state Capitol in opposition to the university’s funding levels recommended by Gov. Ned Lamont last week in his two-year budget proposal.
Backed by a state coalition of public sector labor unions, some of the UConn community staged a mid-day walkout from the university’s Storrs campus, boarded buses and gathered on the north steps of the Capitol building. After the event, state Capitol police estimated that roughly 700 people attended the rally.
At issue was the governor’s budget package, which, if approved by the legislature, would spend around $887 million on UConn, its four regional campuses, and UConn Health over the next two years.
On paper, it’s an increase over the $753 million in baseline funding the school received in the last budget, but it pales when compared to the total of more than $1 billion the university received when combined with temporary federal aid.
During the rally, the governor and his budget proposal came under fire from students, faculty and some Democratic lawmakers who represent towns with UConn campuses.
“When the governor released his budget, he said there was a focus on inclusive opportunity and I think it’s clear from everyone here today that he missed his mark,” said Jon Heiden, external affairs director of the school’s student government.
“We’re here to remind Governor Lamont and the General Assembly that without adequate funding for academics, this state can not prosper,” Zachary Boudah, student body president of UConn’s Avery Point campus, said.
Over 45 minutes the group chanted and applauded a slate of student and faculty speakers from the university’s campuses. At the conclusion of the rally the protestors dispersed, many of them planning to testify at a hearing of the Appropriations Committee being held in the nearby Legislative Office Building.
Sympathetic lawmakers described for the crowd the tone of that hearing.
“The conversation inside has already taken a bad turn,” Rep. Gregg Haddad, a Democrat whose district includes the Storrs campus, said. “Legislators are talking about right-sizing public higher education in Connecticut. That’s a code word for shrinking it and instead we should be expanding it.”
Others said the budget proposal was a disappointment that would lead to higher tuition, less faculty and few in-state college students. Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, said that over the last 30 years Connecticut had reduced its share of UConn tuition from 50 cents on the dollar to less than 25 cents under the proposed budget.
“That is wrong,” Flexer said. “At what point does UConn stop being a public institution if there is no public investment?”
Responding to the rally, the governor released a statement touting historic investments in UConn. Lamont said the budget included the largest baseline grants for the school in state history. The proposal would support wage increases and shift pension and retirement health benefits into the General Fund, making them more competitive for grant funding, he said.
Lamont said the state could not continue to fund the school at the levels it had when pandemic relief funds were available.
“The COVID-19 federal relief funds were intended to be one-time in nature, providing support during the public health emergency. Those federal dollars were never intended to pay for ongoing expenses,” he said. “The UConn administration’s insistence that the state continue covering this federal aid now that it is no longer available is not a fiscally sustainable solution.”
But UConn’s backlash against the governor’s budget began almost immediately after he proposed it last week. Last Tuesday, the Daily Campus reported that UConn President Radenka Maric suggested the school may pull out of an agreement to play UConn basketball and hockey games at the XL Center in Hartford.
During Wednesday’s rally, Jeffrey Ogbar, a history professor and president of the faculty union UConn-AAUP, said he did not buy the governor’s claim that this year’s budget represented a funding increase for the school. He pointed to years of belt-tightening and employee benefit concessions. Ogbar said inflation more than canceled out recent increases.
“Any way you look at it, we’re losing money. We’re not going back to that baseline, we’re going backwards, backwards. It’s a disinvestment any way you look at it,” Ogbar said. “We can’t be flim-flammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked, run amok by a slight of hand.”