Public education could contribute to Connecticut's economy more than it already does, a prominent economist and the president of the University of Connecticut told an audience of 600 people at the annual Connecticut and Business Industry Association/MetroHartford Alliance economy summit.
UConn President Susan Herbst said there was a time when universities thought their economic contribution was as an employer and through spending by out-of-town parents on visits.
But now, she said, they understand that investments in science and engineering are major economic engines. Professors in those fields can pull in hundreds of millions in federal tax dollars that flow through the National Institute of Health and other agencies.
Herbst said UConn has doubled the amount of research grants, to $476 million annually, and that pays for 5,500 lab workers and scientists, who make an average of $60,000 a year.
But she said the university still needs more resources beyond the $2.3 billion the state poured into UConn 2000, building dorms and academic buildings.
"We need to find as many people as we can to put into those beautiful buildings," she said.
She's found a willing partner in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who said she should think bigger when she came asking for money to renovate John Dempsey Hospital. Now the state is investing $850 million in "Bioscience Connecticut."
Over in Storrs, the state is borrowing $125 million to build a 125,000-square-foot building that's aimed at research in engineering and pharmaceuticals.
Frank Donovan, a retired General Electric executive, complained that Connecticut missed the boat on creating a research park at UConn decades ago.
"Connecticut has blown some great opportunities in the past. What makes you think it's going to be different in the future?" he asked Herbst.
"This governor is different from any governor I've worked with in the past," said Herbst, who recently moved to Connecticut from Georgia, and who was a top college administrator in New York before that.
Nick Perna, an economist who lectures at Yale and consults for Webster Bank, praised Malloy's moves to consolidate administrators at the community colleges and Connecticut State University campuses, but said there needs to be more effort to bring productivity to schools and colleges.
He said in his talk at the summit that too much emphasis has been placed on reducing class sizes in primary and secondary schools, when studies have found that shrinking class sizes does not reliably improve outcomes, especially if the changes are just a couple students. Perna said towns should reverse the trend, increasing class sizes by 10 percent.
He said at the university level, huge lecture classes like Economics 101 would better being delivered on video by star lecturers from other universities than by mediocre professors in person.
And he complained to Herbst about UConn's request to raise tuition more than 25 percent over the next four years, which is in order to hire more faculty. The move could lead to fewer people attending college, he said — exactly the opposite of what Connecticut should do, as one of the leading states in total value of goods and services produced per person.
"That's anti-human capital," he told her from the podium. "It deters kids from going on, increases the loans they have to take on."
He added, "The legislature should underwrite that."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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