Storrs — When the University of Connecticut built a new indoor practice facility for the varsity football team nearly seven years ago, it had the state pick up $31 million of the cost.
Since then, enrollment at the state’s main campus has steadily risen, and the 60-year-old rec center, used by all other students, has been struggling to accommodate them. What’s more, varsity teams use the older center’s courts and fields daily, so between 2 and 6 p.m., non-varsity students are kicked off those courts.
Many students — sick of waiting in line to use equipment and the courts — are calling for UConn to build them a new facility.
“We have to race students to the courts,” Julia Quattrini, a senior studying nutritional sciences, told the university’s governing board last week. “This is embarrassing.”
UConn’s executive director for recreational services, Cynthia Costanzo, said for the size of the university, the 2,500 students who show up daily should easily be double.
But the money the state provided to the school — intended to build “intramural, recreational and intercollegiate facilities” — all went to the football team’s practice gym seven years ago.
The solution, state and university officials say, could be to raise all student fees up to $500 a year.
Officials to students: You want it, you pay for it
As UConn President Susan Herbst and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy push to increase enrollment at the school’s main campus by another 30 percent over the next decade, they say the costs of a new recreation center will not be picked up by the state and taxpayers.
“We’ve given pretty heavily, maybe they should figure this one out,” Malloy told reporters Friday.
“We will absolutely not put this on taxpayers… There is just no way,” Herbst said after the last UConn Board of Trustees meeting.
Herbst also said that with the university’s foundation struggling to raise $63 million each year for other projects, philanthropy is not an option.
“This can’t take a dime away from the academic side,” she said.
Over the last two decades, the state has given UConn nearly $2 billion to rennovate and build new facilities. However, the $31 million provided for recreation facilities went entirely to build the $49 million Burton Family Football Complex. That 170,000 square feet facility has a “state-of-the-art weight training room an indoor football field with 120-foot high ceiling”, four hydro-therapy pools and other services for the athletes.
So with state funding for recreation gone, that leave students picking up the bill.
UConn estimates that to open a new $100 million recreation center and pay for its operating costs, undergraduates would need to pay $400 to $500 more a year.
The university’s general fee, which currently pays to operate the existing recreation center and all other non-varsity programs, would not be reduced with the introduction of this new fee for students, said Richard Gray, the system’s budget chief.
This new fee would begin as soon as the new center opens, which would likely be in 2016 if approved by the board this summer.
The university has done no research on whether students support paying to build a new rec center.
Among the 50 students who attended UConn’s board meeting last week, opinions varied.
Paul Bloom said it would be “irresponsible” for the university to continue to increase enrollment with no suitable rec center.
“This is a bigger priority than building another dorm… These students are going to sit and drink” alcohol, Bloom said.
“We are looking for a gym not to share with the athletes,” Mary Grace DeLisi, a UConn senior, told the board.
But several students — mostly graduate students — said the cost is too much.
“We absolutely cannot afford a fee increase,” Hayley Kilroy, a ecology and evolution graduate student.
“All in all it comes down to how much burden we want to put on students,” said Ian Yue, another student.
By 2016, when the rec center would likely open if approved by the board this year, tuition and fees are scheduled to increase by almost 30 percent over the previous four school years.
Adding fees of $400 to $500 would raise the cost of attending UConn by up to 4 percent. This would raise the price for an in-state student living on campus to $26,000 a year, and increase the cost to commuter students to $14,000.
Herbst, UConn’s president, said absent a new student rec center opening, the alternative cannot be opening Gampel Pavilion or the Burton Family Football Complex for general student use.
“They are too full with the [division one] athletes,” she said. Herbst also pointed out that security of the expensive equipment at the basketball and football facilities could also be an issue.
Costanzo said that UConn shares space with its non-athletes as much as it can.
“When those doors open, they come flooding in,” she said, pointing to a garage-like door during a tour of the indoor turf fields.
Costanzo said that the only solution is to build a new facility.
Members of the system’s governing board said a decision about whether to build a new facility could be made this summer.
“It’s tough for me. I never had to use the rec center. As an athlete you get all the facilities you need,” said Rebecca Lobo, a star UConn women’s basketball athlete in the 1990s and now a member of the Board of Trustees.
“We will make the right decision,” she said.
Follow education reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe