Op-ed: Time to hold UConn accountable

September 10, 2014

Len Fasano | Journal Inquirer

The state of Connecticut is very good to UConn. The university receives more than $200 million annually in direct taxpayer support with no strings attached. On top of that, UConn receives billions in taxpayer-financed bond money. In fact, Gov. Dannel Malloy increased bond authorizations for UConn by $2.3 billion, more than Govs. John Rowland and Jodi Rell combined.

So when a recent audit revealed that UConn squandered taxpayer dollars and abused its authority, the state had every right to be disappointed. And we have every right to demand more oversight.

Currently, UConn’s extraordinary state support comes with little oversight or accountability.

Over the years, UConn has lobbied for and received special exemptions from state controls that apply to other state agencies. UConn is exempt from the State Personnel Act and from general state procurement policies.
This means UConn is free to hire personnel, set and raise salaries, make major purchases, enter into contracts and lease property without state oversight.

The state auditors report revealed that UConn abused these freedoms. UConn flagrantly wasted money and failed to put important spending limits and hiring policies in place.

Specifically, the report found that:

  • UConn wasted almost a million dollars on licensing fees for software it was incapable of using — money that could have gone to scholarships, instruction, or student services.
  • UConn entered into a $10 million contract for a new financial system without conducting a formal review or competitive bidding process.
  • And UConn continues to refuse to adopt maximum salary limits for professional employees and fails to verify the work histories and professional credentials of prospective employees.
  • These findings are infuriating. Tax-payers have a right to expect that UConn will spend state money wisely, with a focus on its core mission — to provide access to an affordable quality education for Connecticut students. But that has not been the case.

    Unfortunately, UConn’s questionable spending and misplaced priorities are not new and are issues I have been concerned about for years.

    UConn’s administrative costs are the highest in the nation among public research universities, spending 17 percent of its budget on nonteaching expenses, or $8,493 a year per student. The school has one of the highest paid public college presidents in the country, making well over a half-million dollars, and has squandered money buying a mansion for President Susan Herbst and paying Hillary Clinton an exorbitant speaking fee. UConn has cried poor and raised tuition while the athletic programs bring in more than $40 million a year and the UConn Foundation raised a record $81 million in just the last fiscal year.

    As spending skyrockets, so does tuition. UConn likes to blame tuition increases on cuts in state aid. However, state aid for 2015 will actually be at an all-time high, while tuition is set to increase by 6.5 percent — three times the rate of inflation. The reality is that tuition increases directly reflect UConn’s poor management and misplaced priorities.

    In the past, I have proposed legislation that would address these issues by cutting and capping administrative expenses and increasing state oversight of UConn’s budget, spending, and hiring practices. Recent events make it clear that these reforms, and more, are necessary to protect taxpayers’ investment in our “flagship” university.

    In addition to financial accountability, we must demand educational excellence. Instead of simply paying our public colleges based on student head counts, we need to establish a performance funding system to reward schools for meeting performance standards, such as reducing time to graduation, increasing degrees in science, technology and other high need fields, increasing the number and success of low and moderate income students, and reducing administrative expenses.

    The state must demand quality education in return for its investment and schools should have a vested interest in their students’ success.

    Keeping UConn affordable and accessible is critical to the success of our state and the next generation. It is key to closing the achievement gap and making sure everyone, including low income and minority students, have an opportunity to succeed.

    To protect and preserve this opportunity, the state must reassert its oversight authority and demand both accountability and quality from UConn.