This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

  January 29, 2001

President's Column
The University's critical role in developing the state's workforce is a message we are taking to elected officials.

For the next four months or so, many of us will be devoting considerable attention to our friends in and around the state Capitol in Hartford. This is as it should be. As Connecticut's public research university, we have a strong responsibility to convey to our elected officials our needs, our aspirations, and perhaps above all, our great value to the people of the state.

Our case is as compelling as it is multi-faceted. I take this opportunity to outline one key element among many others: UConn's capacity to prepare men and women to meet the needs of Connecticut's knowledge and innovation-based economy - or, to put it another way, our role in developing the state's workforce.

As we remind our elected leaders, in a state where well being is a function of human capital, the flagship research university occupies a vital position. We play our role through research and public service, through partnerships with major corporations and public agencies, through athletic and cultural events. But first and foremost, we play it by fulfilling what the public perceives as our core function: the education of young men and women, and thereby the preparation of thousands to make a contribution to our statewide, regional, and national economy.

Note that I use the word "education." Too often in a discussion of workforce development we use a much narrower word - "training." There is nothing wrong with training, per se; many of us - myself included - have participated in valuable professional training programs of one kind or another. But the connotation of "training" is the imparting of tightly defined skills, and great universities do so much more than that - even when the ultimate outcome of the endeavor is the development of highly qualified professionals.

We prepare our students not just to be excellent engineers, nurses, pharmacists, physicians, dentists, artists, lawyers, teachers, etc. On a more fundamental level, we endeavor to give them the intellectual depth that will engage them in the larger world, not just through their work but through all aspects of their lives.

When the process of education works as it should, our graduates emerge with the capacity to do their work well, to understand the relationship of their profession to the larger community, to contribute to the nation's civic life, and ultimately to be the agents of positive change.

Having said that, I also recognize that we have a clear and direct responsibility to meet Connecticut's short- and medium-term workforce needs in a wide range of areas.

This is critical in boom times for obvious reasons. But it may be even more important when the trends are negative and private employers focus their resources in places where the economic climate is most favorable and where the human talent pool is strongest.

When I came to the University in 1996, I learned that Connecticut ranked second among the states - just ahead of Alaska - in the percentage of high school graduates exported elsewhere. I already knew that many students who go out of state to college eventually don't return home for anything much beyond Thanksgiving dinner. Connecticut, in other words, was experiencing a "brain drain" that foretold major negative consequences not too far down the road.

But the state had already begun to respond in a big way. UConn 2000 didn't just answer a compelling, highly visible need; it reflected a statewide, fundamental understanding of the importance of capital investment in quality higher education.

The University's own efforts to restructure and reallocate resources, while primarily designed to strengthen our capacity to attain excellence in teaching and research, also positioned us to respond to Connecticut's economic development needs. And thus, without in any way diminishing our commitment to the concept of intellectual rigor for its own sake, we were able to make the case for UConn as a vital source of talent for the major industries of the state.

It is no coincidence that major corporate collaborators undertook or substantially enhanced their investment in the University; enterprises like UTC, GE, Aetna and others found here a highly valuable combination of talented students soon to enter the marketplace and cutting-edge faculty research. Nor has it been accidental that farsighted donors contribute substantially to programs such as those in education that will have an ongoing impact on the quality of life in the state. This combination of corporate and private support is testimony to our capacity to be both an engine that drives economic advance and a vehicle of social progress.

This, in a nutshell, is one of the key arguments we continue to present to our state's elected leadership. The University of Connecticut is not a claimant on public resources. It is, in reality, a generator of progress and productivity. As such, the University represents as wise a target of investment of public resources as can possibly be made in this state.

The happy confluence of educational excellence - worthy on its own terms - and contribution to the long-term strength of Connecticut's economy, offers a case that is as clear as it is compelling. It deserves to be presented with conviction.