The Great Debate
Should UConn Stamford be expanded into a campus befitting the city’s national status as a major financial player, or does the school, a state-of-the-art facility, already serve the academic and professional needs of its students and the community? You decide.
Illustration by Garvin Burke
You’d think that UConn–Stamford was being held back a grade. Mention the campus to anyone around town, and people get riled fast. The City of Stamford continues to grow, emerging as a major financial empire, yet our only university is treated like the notions counter at Bloomingdale’s. All right, the school’s campus used to be a Bloomingdale’s twenty long years ago, but today its advocates have major aspirations to position it as one of the major business schools on the Fairfield County coast. Why is this not happening?
“It’s appalling,” says Kip Bergstrom, head of Stamford’s Urban Redevelopment Com-mission. “It should have expanded a long time ago.” In 1998, when Bergstrom was director of economic development here, UConn Stamford was finally moving from its old location on Scofieldtown Road into the former Bloomingdale’s on Broad Street, a space that had been vacant since 1990. Everything looked good. Then Bergstrom moved to work in Rhode Island.
“When I came back ten years later, it was basically the same footprint, the same size, the same enrollment that it was. That’s absurd, and a major missed opportunity. And it’s the result of active resistance by the folks in Storrs against expansion, because they see it as a zero-sum game, which is totally foolish. The faculty and administrators based in Storrs think that anything that happens outside of Storrs is at their expense.”
Stamford, one of six campuses around the state maintained by the University of Connecticut, is growing; its student population of 1,500 is beginning to outstrip the population of the Hartford campus. Should a Stamford student in good standing want to transfer to the main campus in Storrs, “the transition is seamless,” says the new Stamford director, Sharon White. Indeed, there is already a lot of movement between the two campuses. Some of the new classrooms in Stamford have direct, real-time video hookups to the main campus, so that a student in a Stamford class can ask a question of the professor in Storrs.
More important, upstate students actively seek out time in Stamford. It’s not just the two job fairs that are held annually in Stamford’s wide, sweeping lobby. It’s all the job possibilities and internships down here.
Could students from the Waterbury, Storrs or Avery Point campuses, for instance, get an internship at the likes of UBS, RBS or GE Capital? It wouldn’t be very convenient. “UBS has hired many of our interns,” notes Halina Hollyway, head of the Career Center at the Stamford branch. “And we have quite a few alums there, so we have a nice network there as well. I tell students, 50 percent of the interns are offered positions at the site.
“I have two daughters in Storrs, myself. In Storrs, everything is far away. So you don’t have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the internship and do your classes at the same time. You might be going thirty–forty minutes to Hartford, and that’s a whole different ballgame.”
Which is exactly Bergstrom’s point. “Not all branches are created equal,” he grumbles. “You can’t think of Stamford as a feeder to Storrs. In fact, it should go the other way around. This is the business center, not Storrs, not Hartford. New York metro is the major business engine of the U.S. economy. When you have a portal here, why would you not want to expand that?
“You can tell from the sound of my voice that it’s moved beyond frustration to white-hot anger,” he adds. “I hear it from every single business leader I talk to, every community leader, every economic sector, every political persuasion, ethnicity and faith.”
Sandy Goldstein, president of the Downtown Special Services District (she’s often called “the Queen of Downtown”) echoes the sentiment: “Our state university system turns away thousands of people. How many people who’d like to go to UConn-Stamford say, ‘OK, I’ll go to Purchase because they have room for me?’ It’s an outrage.”
According to Government Center sources, Sharon White’s predecessor, Michael Ego, fought hard for Stamford’s expansion. Last year he decided to return to the faculty and become a professor of human development and family studies. He did not respond to calls for this story.
SERVING A LOCAL NEED
In the years following World War II, returning GIs who enrolled at UConn–Stamford had to attend evening classes at Stamford High School. In 1962 the “campus” was moved five miles north of downtown to the building that now houses Scofield Middle Magnet School. Then in 1990 Bloomingdale’s closed, the victim of its ownership’s financial woes and a countywide scandal that erupted when a shopper from New Canaan was murdered in the parking garage. This left the then-struggling downtown wide open for a new tenant. Enter UConn Stamford.
Although it’s been a decade since the store was transformed into a university, there is still an air of fresh paint and newness about the place. The libraries are immaculate. The hallways and classrooms seem to have been opened just a few weeks ago. Compared with a few other compact city universities, such as Fordham’s Manhattan branch, Stamford fairly gleams.
In her first season on the job, Director Sharon White has good reason to feel right at home. “I worked in this building when it was Bloomingdale’s,” she laughs, sitting in her third-floor office. “I worked in Pre-Teens, not too far from here. One level down. I tell people, ‘Nothing like returning to your roots.’”
Lest one get the impression that the Stamford branch is naught but a barren desert, White assures visitors that it is a four-year college with ten majors available, including economics, English, political science, history, nursing, psychology, business and technology, and business administration. The most popular class here is the MBA program designed for part-time students; it now has 500 students going for the master’s degree and another 100 participating. Another new degree offered this year is in financial risk management.
The leadership in Storrs also begs to differ with any negative assertions. “I do not agree at all with the statements you’ve heard,” says Douglas Cooper, UConn’s vice provost, counting off the classes coming next year in business administration and professional services. “We’ve invested a lot of resources in recruiting freshmen and transfer students and adult learners. Freshmen deposits were up 18 percent this fall, which is the largest increase in enrollment of the regional campuses.
“Things are going well in the regional campuses, which hold 20 percent of our undergraduate population. Of 20,000 total students at University of Connecticut, 4,000 attend at regional campuses. They’re important to our enterprise, our academic institution.”
Professor Jud Saviskas, who oversees the business programs in Stamford, canvassed the major financial players in town to see what the school should concentrate on. “The feedback we got,” he grins, “was, ‘Focus on the practical. We don’t need new quants.’ We don’t need new risk-management theories. We need graduates who can interpret existing theories in a practical way.”
Saviskas is convinced that the Stamford campus will turn into an important business school someday soon. As if to prepare, the Stamford business classes have taken on an international bearing, with students taking trips to Dubai, China and South America.
So far the building can hold them all. “We can manage now,” says White, “but if we get many more students, we’ll have to start creatively managing classes to fit everyone in. We’re busy around the clock but we can grow some.”
Classes have, thankfully, been kept to an intimate size. Unlike Storrs, where you might find up to 300 students in a single class, Stamford averages around 23 students. And, of course, students can easily transfer to the main campus. “In some cases,” White says, “for financial reasons people might need to be at home for a couple of years. They can start a major here and complete it there.”
A transfer would be necessary, for instance, if you desired something as conventional as a degree in sociology. According to student body president Gaby Carpanzano, a senior whose family lives in Stamford, everybody wants expansion. “It’s constantly what we talk about. We all wish we had more degrees to choose from. But the feeling in Storrs is that we’ll just take away from Storrs. Their attitude is, ‘You just be happy with what you have now.’”
As Carpanzano sits behind a desk in Stamford’s IT wing, a rush of students goes past. It’s a diverse crowd that seems very happy. “I love this campus,” she says suddenly. “The networking is the best part. I’ve had so many opportunities to meet the business owners in the neighborhood. When we have our career fairs in the lobby, companies will rent out space and students can just go meet the people and talk and look them in the eye.”
The student stepping out the front door onto Broad Street does not, of course, see the bucolic gardens of a showpiece university. Just to the right, however, is Mill River Park, growing anew under the shadow of the Trump Parc tower. But anyone needing a short stretch of the legs gets to view the bustling downtown, which, thanks to some sharp urban planning over the previous decade, bustles more and more all the time.
There is not much in way of student residence here. Gaby Carpanzano thinks that 90 percent of the students live at home anyway. If the campus could expand, just where would the new buildings go? Some people point to the parking garage on the other side of Washington Boulevard, facing the river, and other properties to the north. Nobody is willing to discuss the Wright Tech buildings just slightly north, now standing vacant. Perhaps there is hope yet for the technical school to return.
If Kip Bergstrom has any hopes that something will get done, they rest on the actions of the new governor.
Last fall Tom Foley, then running as the Republican candidate for governor, offered cautionary support. “When you have a model that’s working well, it’s natural you’d want to build on it, but given the state’s fiscal situation, I don’t think the resources are going to be there if the state has to subsidize its expansion. We need to get the spending under control and start setting up money for investments in our university system and projects such as this if they make sense.”
When Foley met with UConn’s leaders earlier in the year, he found them more concerned with the Health Center in Farmington. Senator Christopher Dodd had inserted a $100 million earmark in the U.S. Senate’s health care bill to help the hospital; the fate of the money was still being juggled. “That’s what is on their minds,” says Foley, “not expanding UConn in Stamford.”
One exception would be if a Stamford expansion could be “self-financing,” in other words, expanding into a business school that would provide tuition and other revenues that would cover the capital cost of such a move. This is what Professor Saviskas talks about; he has seen offers of grants and further investment from the likes of UBS, IBM and a number of hedge funds.
Governor Dan Malloy thundered about expanding the Stamford branch through most of his fourteen years as mayor of Stamford. Two years ago he was even wondering aloud if the Stamford branch should leave UConn and join Southern Connecticut in the state university system. Currently, Malloy still wants it to grow as a UConn product befitting a city with such an educated workforce. “I think we need to make it easier for people to get their degrees in Connecticut,” he says. “That should be a prime mission for our educational system. I think it’s the right time to see it expanded.”
The university owns sufficient land to expand. “But that’s not the problem,” says Malloy. “The problem is overcoming the inertia and fitting everything we want to do with what we can afford to do.”