Is UConn starving for investment or pigging out on cash?

Depending on to whom you talk, the University of Connecticut is either starving for more state investment or it is already pigging out.

“It appears [UConn is] a man eating with two forks. And that’s sometimes how we’re asked about expenditures at UConn. You know, when is it enough?” Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, recently told UConn’s president. Maynard is a member of the legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Marcelli, Chris

CCSU Student Chris Marcelli to legislators: ‘There are 17 other institutions you may want to invest in.’

Legislators across the state have been fielding similar questions ever since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed that the state spend $2.1 billion to drastically expand enrollment at the state’s flagship university.

“It’s hard to explain why UConn is getting a solid increase under this budget proposal while the [other public college] system is getting cuts,” Chris Marcelli, a senior at Central Connecticut State University, told the legislature’s Higher Education Committee last week.

“There are 17 other [public] institutions you may want to invest in,” he said.

But Malloy says the time is not right, noting that the Board of Regents has not submitted any big ideas yet for his office to consider.

“The projects that have come to my desk, I funded,” he told reporters Monday after a rally at the Capitol supporting his UConn initiative. “This is not exclusive for the University of Connecticut… These are not exclusive investments.”

So why is the time right for massive investment in UConn?

Malloy says because the state has consistently under-invested in science, math, technology and engineering programs, thus letting jobs and future workers move out of state.

“Other people eat our lunch. I am tired of it,” said Malloy.

A tale of two college systems

In an effort to expand course offerings to help students graduate on time, UConn officials created 50 new faculty positions and filled them this school year.

Meanwhile, over at the state’s other public college system, state budget cuts stalled plans at the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (ConnSCU) to hire 47 new faculty this year in mostly science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. The system’s Board of Regents has also implemented a hiring freeze to limit which positions will be filled when someone retires or quits, while UConn plans to hire another 240 faculty over the next three years.

This was the landscape when Malloy proposed his $2.1 billion plan for UConn in January. It would pay to construct new high-tech facilities to accommodate a wave of new students and hire another 259 new faculty and 158 guidance counselors and other support staff.

“I am hearing a lot of concerns. I have concerns personally… This really big investment in UConn sort of feels like a disinvestment in the community colleges and the state college universities,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, told the governor’s budget director during a recent legislative hearing.

CSUS and UConn

Those concerns spilled over to her committee last week, as several speakers from the state’s largest college system expressed their displeasure.

“Like the University of Connecticut, [Connecticut State University] needs a significant investment from the state to hire full-time faculty,” testified Vijay Nair, president of the college system’s faculty union.

Aside from the new state funding for the construction projects, Malloy’s proposal would also infuse funding to cover the operating costs for additional faculty at UConn. For the 2014-15 school year, the state would increase support by $17.4 million and gradually raise it to $137 million over the next decade. The net effect would be an increase in state support of about 70 percent from the $195 million the university is set to receive this year.

That price tag could be a tough sell for legislators as they work to cut millions from dozens of other programs to close the state’s budget deficits.

“Everything we spend, we have to cut… like at our [Connecticut State Universities], the 47 positions they were promised that are not coming their way,” Bye, D-West Hartford, told UConn President Susan Herbst during an Appropriations Higher Education subcommittee meeting Tuesday.

“We have things in this budget we have to cut to give you $17.4 million, really painful things,” said Rep. Toni Walker, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told Herbst.

Building into the future

When UConn student Michael Daniels heard the police were called to UConn’s Life Sciences Building in 2011 for a burglary, he knew right away it was a false alarm.

“As students, we know our science facilities are out of date… Who would want to steal 50-year-old microscopes?” Daniels asked  a crowd at the state Capitol complex Monday rallying for the Next Generation UConn proposal.

With the majority of UConn’s science, technology, engineering and math faculty currently teaching in facilities more than 50 years old, the Next Generation proposal would provide the university $1.8 billion for construction projects, which breaks out to roughly $177.5 million a year.

“We are at the limit. We cannot train anymore students,” Provost Mun Y. Choi told the Appropriations Commitee’s Higher Education subcommittee Tuesday. “We cannot expect our faculty to work in buildings that are leaking.”

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities’ 16-campus system are also in need of an $836 million investment for renovations of existing buildings.

“A significant backlog of projects exist across the state… Spending into existing space isn’t meeting investment targets. Backlog is growing,” says a report released in January that was commissioned by the regents.

When it comes to whether the community colleges or four-year universities in the system are most in need of renovations, the report found the universities are the neediest.

“I know there are quite a number of projects that have been waiting for quite some time,” Sen. Andrea Stillman, told ConnSCU officials last week. She is chairwoman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee’s subcommittee for higher education projects.

It’s not as though the ConnSCU system will get no construction funding in the coming years — it’s just far below the $177.5 million heading for UConn each year.

ConnSCU’s four bachelor’s degree-granting universities — which collectively enroll the same number of full-time students as UConn — are set to receive $95 million a year for construction projects for the next six years to renovate or build new facilities.

The state’s dozen community colleges, which enroll about the same number of full-time equivalent students as UConn, also receive millions each year for construction projects. Malloy announced Tuesday that the State Bonding Committee will vote next week to give $33.6 million to the system’s community colleges for renovations and other projects. In the governor’s proposed two-year budget, he recommends $77.6 million in new funding for the community colleges.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reports the four bachelor’s degree-granting institutions in the ConnSCU system have received $1.2 billion in funding for construction projects from the state over the last 30 years. The community colleges received $743.4 million during that time.

“People who are not aware get excited” that ConnSCU is being left out, Philip E. Austin, the system’s interim president, said during an interview last week. “I think we have received wonderful support.”

Austin, who was previously the president of UConn, helped the flagship university land $1.5 billion in construction funding for the Storrs and regional campuses (not including the UConn Health Center) since 1996.

Separately, lawmakers in 2011 committed to an $864 million expansion and renovation plan for the UConn Health Center, which includes John Dempsey Hospital, research labs and the university’s medical and dental schools.

If you build it, will they come?

Two prominent legislators are having a hard time getting on board with UConn’s plans for its Stamford campus.

Rep. Roberta Willis, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, doesn’t quite understand why UConn wants to spend millions to create a digital media program in Stamford.

The state’s Western Connecticut State University is set to open a new $97 million arts building a few towns over, and there is a top-tier digital media program just over the state border at the State University of New York — “Fourteen miles away,” the Democrat from Salisbury said to UConn’s president Tuesday.

Then she turned to the close proximity of WCSU.

Herbst, Susan

UConn President Susan Herbst: ‘I don’t want it to be us against them.’

“Why in the world would we be putting digital media in” Stamford, she asked, noting that ConnSCU system is in desperate need of help as it copes with funding shortfalls as a result of declining enrollment.

But UConn’s Herbst said it doesn’t have to be one campus or the other.

“I don’t want it to be us against them,” she responded.

With enrollment declines at the ConnSCU system causing deficits, some legislators are leery of how UConn’s plans to expand enrollment by one-third will not impact the number of students heading for Western or the other colleges.

The plan, UConn officials say, is to target students headed out of state to colleges like CalTech and the University of Wisconsin.

With four of every 10 Connecticut high school graduates attending college elsewhere, Connecticut is one of the top exporters of its college-bound students, the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

“That is certainly a cause for pause on our part,” said Wayne Locust, UConn’s vice president for enrollment planning and management. “We need to do a better job keeping our students here.”

This past fall, of the 3,847 Connecticut residents that applied for science, technology, engineering and math programs at UConn, 60 percent were offered enrollment. Of those who applied, almost one-quarter would enroll.

Another strategy to keep more students in Connecticut is to offer 325 of these new students full-ride scholarships on top of the financial aid that will also be available for other students.

Despite similar programs being nearby, some legislators are still asking why the state should expand in Stamford, where property is some of the most expensive in the state.

“Connecticut is not that big. Maybe we [should] find less expensive property to build on,” Walker told Herbst, noting if it is millions cheaper to build in Waterbury, she could appropriate that funding to other needy projects. “Is this the smartest investment?”

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe