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Why is UConn on this cold, windy hill?

By Kristi Allen
On March 4, 2014

As UConn students, one of our favorite things to complain about is that our school is in the middle of nowhere. To push our number of 'nightlife spots' into the double digits, you would have to count 7/11, Subway and DP Dough as destinations. Even though a lack of bars and clubs might not necessarily be detrimental to our educations, the people who complain about UConn's isolation might be on to something.
The placement of our school is a strange, inefficient holdover from a very different time, and it's beginning to cause problems. The rationale for UConn's location goes back more than a century.
In 1888, the Storrs Agricultural School was founded with land and funds donated by Charles and Augustus Storrs. Five years later it entered the federal land grant program. This land grant program is responsible for beginning most of our flagship universities across the country.
With most of the Southern states who opposed the bill in succession, Abraham Lincoln was able to sign the Morrill Act into law in 1862. The purpose of the bill was to establish schools in every state to teach engineering, military tactics and agricultural science to the "industrial classes". Unlike traditional private colleges, the universities were supposed to deemphasize liberal arts (but not exclude them completely) and focus on training the new working class.
Over the next few decades, the school's focus slowly shifted, according to the UConn archives. The Storrs Agricultural School officially changed its name to 'University of Connecticut' in 1939, but by then there were already more traditional students than agricultural students at UConn.
The name change was a contentious issue - many thought that the state couldn't afford a University or shouldn't bother to establish one where there were so many private colleges. Others thought the state was wasting its money teaching literature, language and history to the working class.
The Daily Campus, then called the "Connecticut Campus," actually led the campaign to change the school's name. Being designated as a university was supposed to add legitimacy to a UConn degree and pave the way for further development.
Over 70 years later, UConn is at a similar crossroads. We've drifted far from agriculture and are trying to re-brand ourselves as a public Ivy. The school is also facing similar conflicts with the state's commitment to funding and questions about whom a public university should serve. One thing is decided: the school should be huge.
When UConn entered the land grant program 120 years ago as the Storrs Agricultural School, eastern Connecticut was the perfect place for the campus. Now, the limitations of Storrs as a location for a world-class research institution are becoming apparent.
The recent water issues are a good example. Because UConn is on a hill, the enormous quantity of water we use has to be pumped uphill. The school has dried up the Fenton river in the past and now needs other water sources to support our expansion projects.
Mansfield residents are divided on the university - some favor the businesses UConn is bringing into town, others worry about their quiet rural community being overrun by UConn sprawl. The town's roads get backed up on weekends and game nights and their infrastructure in general takes more wear and tear because of UConn.
Furthermore, the drawbacks of rural eastern Connecticut life are enough to keep many students and professors from bringing their talents to UConn. While the school does an admirable job of bringing events to campus, there's still nothing beyond a few bars and restaurants (and of course, 7/11) off campus. Not the most appealing climate for students and especially adults.
All the development and campus culture that UConn is pushing on Mansfield could do wonders elsewhere - namely at the satellite campuses. Moving the West Hartford branch into downtown Hartford is a great first step, and hopefully the university will follow up and give the branch what it needs to thrive. Waterbury, Torrington, Stamford and Groton could all benefit from vibrant student communities as well.
UConn was built in the middle of nowhere in part because of the cost of land, but now that the school has to build roads and water pipelines up to campus, it's clear that this isn't the most efficient location. Storrs will be the main campus for the foreseeable future- there's been far too much invested here to abandon. Hopefully, the next time we have to make a major development decision for the university system, our lawmakers and administrators will consider their investments and visions for the future more carefully.  


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