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New Governmental Relations Directorhen Alvin Wilson goes to bat for UConn at the state Capitol this legislative session, he'll be aiming for a level of excellence that will enable the University to compete with the very best higher education institutions in the country.
An Advocate for Excellence
Wilson is acutely aware of the importance of public education. A product of the Norwalk public schools, Princeton University and the UConn law school, he was the first in his family to go to college. He says public education is the only route to opportunity for many people, and those who receive a public education must be able to compete with others who have been educated at the best private schools.
Wilson took up the post of director of governmental relations in the fall. He joins a team of professionals working with President Philip E. Austin and Peter Deckers, executive vice president for health affairs at the UConn Health Center, as advocates for the University with the General Assembly. His colleagues are Lori Aronson, vice president for financial planning and management; Scott Brohinsky, director of university communications; and administrative assistant Jill Goodwin.
"We are the face of the University to the legislature," Wilson says.
As the session gets underway, Wilson, who has offices at both the Storrs campus and the Health Center, is gearing up to spend most of his working hours at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford in what is anything but a nine-to-five job.
"We want to become familiar to the legislators," he says, "and keep our antennae up for things that might be happening. Like others who are lobbying for different interests, we try to catch legislators in their offices or in the hallways, and we try to set up meetings with them."
He's already a familiar face at the Capitol, having previously headed governmental relations at the Department of Children and Families. And in a job where person-to-person relationships are key, he's well known to many of the legislators with whom he'll be working, including members of the Education, Public Health, and Appropriations Committees.
Wilson, an economics graduate, has arrived at UConn at a critical juncture in the legislative cycle, as the University prepares to promote and defend its budget for the next biennium. Although the state has a considerable budget surplus, spending is limited by a cap.
And in the face of major issues such as K-12 education, mental health services, public transportation, the rising cost of prescription drugs, and health care for an aging population, Wilson recognizes that UConn is one of many entities trying to tap into state resources.
"The University is not seen to be in a crisis situation by the outside world," he says. "Our job is to help make and keep UConn a priority in the current climate."
Wilson says the public perception is that UConn has done fairly well in recent years, with the state's billion-dollar investment in the University's infrastructure. "That doesn't answer the question of the operating side of our budget, and how the institution is to keep pace with the growth in student enrollment," he says, "but crises get attention first."
One special proposal the University will champion this year is to expand the legislation - which originated as part of UConn 2000 - under which private funds raised by any of Connecticut's higher education institutions for endowment purposes are matched two-to-one by the state. Some are underutilizing the available state dollars, and UConn is seeking to be eligible for the unclaimed money if the University has already reached its maximum.
But the overall message, he says, will be that the University is on the right track and the investment by the legislature and the governor in UConn 2000 helped turn things around. Still, the state is making a huge investment in elementary and secondary education and it must continue to invest in higher education as a way to keep those students in Connecticut. "We should not lose the investment we have made in our children," he says.
Wilson plans to work closely with a new legislative committee on workforce development that will examine issues such as the shortages of nurses and pharmacists, areas in which UConn can make an important contribution.
When it comes to the issue of talented students' staying in the state where they go to college, Wilson's own career is a case in point. It was largely his experiences at the UConn law school that encouraged him to stay in Hartford and work in state government. "I remember a course taught by Judge (Robert) Satter about the legislative process," he says, "and Rep. Bill Dyson (co-chair of the appropriations committee) came to speak. He's a very impressive man. I also did an internship at the legislature for Rep. Jack Thompson."
After graduating from law school in 1993, Wilson, who had previously worked in information services for a couple of corporations, began his public service career at the state Department of Education as legislative liaison, then spent three years as special counsel to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, and two years at DCF.
Although he's clearly in demand, he modestly says his greatest accomplishment has not yet happened.
"In this type of work, there are no guarantees of success," he says. "governmental relations is incremental and the big things don't happen overnight.
"Obviously accomplishing your objective provides the highest reward, and that's what governmental relations strives to do, but there's also satisfaction in being well prepared and communicating as best you can what the issues are."