Photographers swarmed UConn President Radenka Maric as she prepared to testify to the Appropriations Committee, backed by hundreds of students who rallied at the State Capitol beforehand. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Earlier this month, The Daily Campus Editorial Board critiqued the Feb. 15 rally to “#SaveUConn” from what the University of Connecticut Undergraduate Student Government dramatically characterized as $160 million in “budget cuts” proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, operating under information from a university communication by President Radenka Maric.

The rally mobilized around 700 students and authorized $37,000 in USG spending, according to the organization’s Governing Board meeting minutes for a Jan. 21 emergency board meeting.  

After the rally, however, Gov. Lamont rebuffed USG and President Maric’s claims of outright budget cuts as “misinformation,” and heralded state support for the university as “the largest block grant ever proposed for UConn.” Furthermore, UConn’s budget shortfall was ultimately a function of expiring federal COVID-19 relief funds. Thus, as far as its stated goals go, the rally was rendered a performative stunt sanctioned by the UConn administration and carried out uncritically by its proxy in USG — in no small part because of President Maric’s unsubtle threat of raising tuition by $3,000.  

In the rally’s wake, it appears that students and organizations have readily come to terms with the malfeasance of the administration. According to The Daily Campus, student groups such as PowerUp UConn also identified President Maric’s claims as misinformation and “propaganda,” and social media — see the comments under USG’s post-rally Instagram victory lap — continues to reflect growing disillusionment with the university’s leadership. These concerns are valid. 

The UConn community is due for a major reckoning with the fact that our leaders will not and cannot act in the interests of working class students and families. This is not to sound nihilistic; rather, in order to protect our financial security and pursue meaningful democratic processes at this institution, students should recognize that the motivations of trustees and administrators lie in generating revenue as opposed to making UConn an affordable, accessible or financially sustainable university.  

By design, the Board of Trustees has no responsibility to make UConn affordable. In fact, they are so indifferent to saving costs for students that even modest proposals such as the 2019 Connecticut Commitment, a fundraising initiative to pay tuition for students with annual household incomes below $50,000, was suspended by the university after just one year.

According to former President Thomas Katsouleas, the cost of the program would have cost $5 million by its fourth year. At the time, Board Chair and Morgan Stanley managing director Dan Toscano claimed that the university’s “commitment to financial need, affordability and accessibility only grows.”

However, while the tuition-saving program with a $5 million price tag was put on hold indefinitely, the board approved financing for an ice forum named after Toscano using $17 million in university funds and $20 million in private donations less than one year later. Funding a university is by no means simple, but UConn’s low priority for low-income and working class students sends a clear message: The Board of Trustees doesn’t represent student interests. 

As the Connecticut Commitment collects dust, tuition will increase by almost $1,000 a year until 2024, according to a five-year plan proposed the summer prior to the Commitment’s suspension. The university claimed these tuition raises were to “protect academic quality” — vaguely measured by high median SAT scores and shorter average graduation times — as well as reduced state support.

Regardless of President Maric and USG’s failure to pit the student body against the state, this trend of systematic divestment from education is real and concerning. By the estimation of a recent Daily Campus opinion article, the governor’s budget still enacted a 7% real cut to UConn’s funding when accounting for inflation. Lamont’s massive tax cuts and unwillingness to tax wealthy Connecticut residents, especially during a historically large state budget surplus, spell danger for higher education support. Most significantly, Lamont appoints 12 out of 21 UConn trustees, who are continually responsible for our financial woes. 

Aside from USG, President Maric is another possible advocate for students given that she leads the entire administration. President Maric did, after all, threaten to pull UConn’s basketball teams from the Hartford XL Center in early February; just as soon, though, she folded under slight pushback from the governor and rescinded her claim. As defined by the bylaws of the Board of Trustees, “the President is responsible for carrying out and enforcing all policies” adopted by the board, and does not have voting power on the body. President Maric could not fight the board on matters of accessibility or affordability if she wanted to. 

Even equipped with USG and a single — currently vacant — undergraduate trustee position, students have no real representation or power when it comes to issues that determine our ability to attend this university. So the question lingers: Who is capable of protecting students’ interests? As the UConn community rallied on Feb. 15 against budget cuts, each with their own motivations for opposing higher costs and a more obstructive barrier to public education that differed from the cynical campaign by USG and President Maric, they answered — we must protect our own interests. 

This opinion was originally published Feb. 22, 2023, by the University of Connecticut Daily Campus.