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A smart investment at Avery Point

By MICHAEL ALFULTIS

Publication: The Day

Published April 28. 2013 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
The new state commitment of $15 million to the University of Connecticut campus in Groton, combined with the $60 million of improvements there in the past decade, position UConn Avery Point for a bright future in maritime and environmental studies.

The state legislature's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee recently announced that $15 million would be set aside for the Avery Point Campus as part of the $1.5 billion authorized for the University of Connecticut under Next Generation Connecticut. I would like to thank the efforts of the southeastern Connecticut legislative delegation as well as local community leaders for their efforts and advocacy on behalf of Avery Point. I would also like to thank The Day for highlighting the need to make capital improvements to the Avery Point campus.

Last week's announcement can seemly bring two possible responses. It can bring a "glass half full" response that looks forward to an ambitious effort to modernize Avery Point's academic facilities, which will directly impact the students of southeastern Connecticut; or a "glass half empty" response, which longs for a larger investment in Avery Point, which would allow for construction of new buildings rather than renovation of old buildings. While part of me would be the first to join those who see the glass as half empty, I would like to highlight many of the reasons why I see the glass as half full. That enthusiasm centers on where Avery Point is today, the impact this $15 million will have on Avery Point in the relative short term, and the direction I see for Avery Point in the long term.

First, Avery Point has undergone a tremendous transformation over the past decade. More than $60 million in new construction and renovations have occurred on campus, including a new Marine Sciences Building, new Project Oceanology Building, new Central Utility Plant, a new Seawater Research facility, two new coastal research vessels, extensive renovations to our library and Branford House mansion, and our new $9 million Student Center scheduled to be completed this summer.

In addition to these infrastructure improvements, Avery Point has been transformed from a UConn "Branch Campus" offering only two years of undergraduate programming to a UConn Regional Campus offering five four-year undergraduate programs (American Studies, English, General Studies, Maritime Studies, and Marine Sciences) and graduate programming in marine sciences, engineering, nursing, and teacher certification. As part of this transition, we have added faculty in marine sciences, maritime archeology, environmental economics, geography, history, English, and mathematics. This year alone, we increased Avery Point's full-time faculty by 10 percent. In summary, Avery Point today is not the same campus many in southeastern Connecticut remember.

Yet there is still much that still needs addressing.

The U.S. Coast Guard built what are now our two academic buildings just prior to World War II. They lack modern climate control and appropriate handicap access. Their exterior walls have large cracks due to settling over the years and their roofs are failing. While Avery Point could use a modern, newly constructed academic building to replace these aging buildings, fiscal constraints within the State of Connecticut and within UConn do not allow for such a large capital project at Avery Point at this time.

The $15 million approved by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee will allow us to modernize these buildings, extending their serviceable life. In addition to addressing concerns with the buildings' exteriors and handicap access, we will be able to modernize many of the classrooms and labs.

These improvements will allow us to continue to serve the academic needs of the students until that time when fiscal conditions improve, allowing for construction of a new academic facility at Avery Point.

In addition, with the new investment we will be able to renovate our waterfront facilities, transforming what was constructed with the Branford House mansion in 1904 into a modern waterfront operations center that fully supports our research mission, educational activities, and public outreach efforts. These improvements will build on the efforts over the past decade, dramatically improving the learning environment and research infrastructure, and are the most fiscally prudent for Avery Point in the short term.

Our vision for Avery Point is as a National Center for Coastal Solutions, a marine and maritime campus generating innovative solutions for sustainable environments and economies. Avery Point will be a campus that provides state-of-the-art experiential learning with a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), complemented by knowledge and skills from across relevant humanities and social science disciplines. We will educate and train excellent scientists, researchers, and policy makers who can work together on science-based management of coastal ocean and maritime environments. The goal is to integrate the STEM disciplines, social sciences, and humanities through interdisciplinary examinations of coastal marine and maritime environments, issues, and challenges; and collaborate with national and international marine and maritime research and educational institutions on these issues and challenges. We are in the process of developing plans for our facilities, infrastructure, and new faculty hires that will move this vision towards reality. In fiscally challenging times, I have found it is important to have a long-term plan and the patience to address that plan systematically and sequentially over time.

With continued support from southeastern Connecticut's legislative delegation, local community leaders, and UConn's senior leadership, I am confident that once the fiscal climate improves, Avery Point will someday be a residential campus with modern academic facilities. In addition, Avery Point's faculty and students will play an important role in developing innovative solutions to the coastal issues facing Connecticut.

When I look at Avery Point today, the impact $15 million will have on Avery Point in the near term, and this long term vision for Avery Point for the future, my glass is more than half full - it is overflowing.

Micahel Alfultis is director of the Avery Point campus.

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