While the University of Connecticut’s oft-touted U.S. News & World Report rankings have improved in recent years – its ratings that focus on research have slipped.
This month, they slipped further.
The state’s flagship public university ranked 64th in overall spending on research among public and private research schools in 2005 by the National Science Foundation. By 2016, the school was in 83rd place, though nine of the schools ranked better than UConn had not been included in the previous ratings.
Rankings released last week show the school has now dropped to 86th place.
It’s not because spending on research is declining at the university. Rather, the problem seems to be that research activity just isn’t increasing as fast as it is at other schools across the country.
Between 2016 and 2017, research activity at UConn and UConn Health increased by $2.1 million – a 0.8 percent increase. The average increase at colleges across the country, however, was 4.7 percent.
UConn officials say the snail’s pace in research activity is linked to the state’s past fiscal sin of not putting enough money aside to cover employee pension costs.
That bill has now come due – and is tacked on as an added cost on grant applications.
The state comptroller each year sets a fringe benefits rate that state agencies and public universities must pay to cover their employees’ non-salary benefits. In 2004, that rate was 31.3 percent for employees who signed up for the state’s pension system (rather than a 401(k) plan), meaning an employee earning $100,000 would actually cost UConn $131,300.
By 2011, the fringe rate was 40 percent. It now stands at 64.3 percent, and there are signs that the steep increases will continue.
“It puts us in an unfavorable position. Research grants don’t go as far as they would at other institutions,” said Radenka Maric, UConn’s executive vice president for research. “The fringe benefits are one of the biggest obstacles that we are facing.”
But Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said UConn doesn’t get to blame the high fringe benefit rates since college officials have not publicly spoken up about employee benefits when the current administration negotiated contracts with union officials.
“The continuous blame game UConn plays when faced with bad news is misguided and frustrating. For years, UConn has spent an exorbitant amount of money on questionable priorities, raises, and has avoided oversight. Now they are quick to blame the state and specifically fringe benefit costs for the issues they face, which will increase due to pay raises built into the [union] deal. Yet, when lawmakers were voting on SEBAC, UConn was silent,” Fasano said. “I believe they had a fiduciary responsibility to students, staff and professors to talk about [the union contract’s] adverse effect on UConn. Their silence breached that obligation.”
Tuition dollars are fueling the growth.
While federal funding is by far the largest revenue source for research at UConn, the university has increasingly relied on institutional funding, such as tuition money, to grow research.
Research spending increased by $56 million since 2004, of which more than half (55 percent) came from institutional funding and 32 percent from federal grants.
Data released last week show this trend continuing between 2016 and 2017, with federal funding actually decreasing slightly – by $750,000 – while institutional aid increased by about $2 million, as did spending by businesses paying for research by UConn faculty.
Maric said partnering with industry is the path forward. Recently UConn has created or bolstered partnerships with numerous companies across the state, including Travelers and Pfizer.
“We believe UConn is going in the direction of being more relevant to the state’s economy,” she said.
State officials have been trying for years to make the University of Connecticut one of the nation’s top public research universities. In 2013, legislators approved an ambitious 10-year plan to spend $2.4 billion through fiscal year 2024. The money is slated for renovations to existing buildings and increasing the number of dorms, classrooms and labs to accommodate additional students and research activity at the Storrs and Stamford campuses.
“Connecticut is a great enough state to have a top research university that leads scientific discovery. Why should Michigan have one? Why should North Carolina have one? Why shouldn’t Connecticut have one?” UConn President Susan Herbst asked lawmakers when selling the initiative. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
The plan won legislative approval in 2013, with UConn officials estimating at the time it would mean an additional $34 million in annual research activity by the end of 2017.
Data released last week show spending has increased by only an additional $10 million.
Prior to that investment, lawmakers in 2011 approved a plan to spend $864 million – on a project called “Bioscience Connecticut” – to improve clinical care at UConn Health by renovating its existing hospital and building a new patient tower and lab space.
At the time, the university said it would help double research spending at the health center. A $291 million package to help The Jackson Laboratory build a genomics institute on UConn’s Farmington campus also was approved in 2011.
“The creation of a strong public research university is critical to ensuring our long-term economic competitiveness,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, told the legislature in his State of the State speech when proposing Next Generation. “My proposal is that we get Connecticut and UConn back in the game in a big way.”
In addition to the high fringe benefit costs, officials say they haven’t had enough operating funds to hire all the faculty and researchers they had planned when the state approved funding in 2011 and 2013.
“Given all the investment in Next Generation and BioScience we still don’t see the growth. We are expecting big growth in the next five years. This takes time,” said Maric. “We have had the budget cuts so we haven’t been able to make the hiring that we would have liked. … It’s significantly less than we would have liked to do. We hope we would be able to get back on track on recruiting the research faculty.”