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February 14, 2005

Avery Point Campus Expanding
Horizons With Comprone At Helm

Joseph Comprone, associate vice provost and director of the Avery Point Campus, at the Branford House.

Joseph Comprone, associate vice provost and director of the Avery Point Campus, at the Branford House.

Photo by Tina Covenskye

When the Avery Point Campus hosted a pirate’s ball last fall, Joseph Comprone dressed like Captain Kidd. Sporting striped balloon pants, lacy shirt, shiny boots, sword, and eye patch, Comprone showed his fun-loving side. But when it came time to deliver a message about the importance of the campus to the community and its need for more scholarships, Comprone became serious.

“Our campus is growing. It’s now taking advantage of its location on Long Island Sound and is expanding the horizons of its faculty, staff, and students,” he says.

Comprone, associate vice provost and campus director, arrived at the campus five years ago. He viewed it as a homecoming, having grown up in nearby Waterford.

“UConn is the place I want to be,” he says. Formerly dean of arts and sciences at Arizona State West, Comprone has overseen tremendous campus growth at both Avery Point and ASU West.

“The campus, surprisingly enough, was never really designed to take advantage of its waterfront location,” he says. ”Most of the buildings were thrown up in war time by the U.S. Coast Guard, with the thought that they would be torn down later,” he says. When UConn took over some of the buildings in 1967, students used them to cycle through their freshmen and sophomore years on their way to Storrs. Few really paid much attention to the bright blue water just beyond the lawn.

All that has changed. The campus now offers three new four-year majors, built on a connection to the sea, and has a new Marine Sciences Research Building, home not only to faculty but also to undergraduate and graduate students who spend most of their time in Avery Point doing research on coastal environments and maritime studies.

“Campus leaders at Avery Point are creating a truly unique balance among classroom, laboratory, field, and on-the-water learning experiences, in an overall environment that brings research and teaching together in a unique way,” Comprone says. “Today, Avery Point offers a very special experience.”

The new four-year majors, maritime studies, American studies, and coastal studies, have attracted so many new students – including many from out of state – that Comprone and Ellen Anderson, director of recruitment at the campus, had to figure out how to house new arrivals at a nearby apartment complex. Sixty undergraduate students at Avery Point are housed in off-campus housing. Marine science research has grown as well, and “now about half the people who come here come because of the marine related majors,” Comprone says.

In fact, freshmen enrollment at the campus has grown more than 30 percent since 1996.

The campus boasts other physical improvements as well. Its historic lighthouse is being restored with private and public dollars; and the Branford House mansion, a Newport-style structure at the center of the campus, once owned by Morton Plante, has been restored to host offices and the Alexey von Schlippe Art Gallery. It is also used as reception space both for campus functions and for weddings and other events. Plante, who benefited from railroad, steamship, and hotel holdings, built the mansion in 1903, when it was reportedly worth $3 million. He turned his estate, which includes a caretaker’s house – currently used by the campus police department – over to the state in the 1930’s.

The new marine sciences building hosts a number of researchers, as well as the Sea Grant and National Undersea Research Program offices. The center serves the laboratory and classroom needs of undergraduate coastal studies students and graduate students in oceanography and marine biology, chemistry, and physical oceanography. The Research Vessel Connecticut, the 80-foot ocean-going research vessel of the marine sciences department, extends faculty and student research efforts well beyond regional waters.

The new Project Oceanology building on campus houses programs that take many middle and high school students on the water for marine science experiments. Project Oceanology also offers an ecology cruise, seal excursions, and other environmental cruises on Long Island Sound.

To ensure that faculty and students have well-rounded experiences, and to contribute to the culture of the local community, the Avery Point Campus has developed a small but high quality arts program that includes an innovative art gallery and the Avery Point Playhouse, home to an annual playwrights’ festival, poetry slams, puppetry programs, and jazz nights.

The campus open house last fall coincided with a “Festival by the Sound” co-sponsored by the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce. The festival featured not only lab tours and author talks but also an on-the-water pirate battle and wandering swashbucklers who demonstrated fencing. The weekend began with the pirate’s ball.

“Outreach to the community is very important to the campus,” Comprone says. “Events like these help us showcase what we have to offer, and the fabulous research that is taking place on campus.”

Comprone finds the campus’s growth exciting. “This campus has had an ideal opportunity to grow in new ways,” he says. “And there is more to come. Half of what we’ve done is reality and the other half is still in conception.”

Coming challenges include completion of the physical plant master plan now under development, and expanded recruitment for the four-year programs. Other programs that must be further developed include internships with various local partners and additional overseas study to supplement a marine archaeological program that took place last summer in southern Portugal.

“While we want to take advantage of the water, we also have a complex mission to develop,” says Comprone.

An English professor, Comprone left Arizona five years ago partly because he had grown up in Waterford and still had family in town, and partly because he was tired of Arizona’s 100-degree weather. One of the reasons he was drawn to Avery Point was that he found the campus’s ties to Storrs intriguing.

“It is not a good idea for a campus, as the Arizona West campus was, to be academically separated or accredited separately,” he says. “When that occurs, both quality and the richness of available resources suffer dramatically. At Avery Point, we are striving to build strong and unfettered relationships with Storrs departments. Only through this kind of cooperation can we offer the kind of research university quality to the entire state and beyond.”

So most semesters, often several times a week, Comprone, like other faculty at Avery Point, travels to Storrs either to teach a course in modern literature or to attend meetings. “It is a good thing to promote an integrated relationship between our campus and the Storrs campus,” he says. “So I have tried to become a part of life at Storrs as well as here.”