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1-A football would enhance academics,
speakers tell higher ed committee

A steady stream of UConn officials, faculty and students Thursday afternoon endorsed a proposal to move the football team to Division I-A, telling members of the General Assembly's higher education subcommittee the move would enhance, not detract, from the University's academic mission.

"This University is the state's flagship research University. It was created for the dissemination of education, the cultivation of minds, period. But learning and education do not occur only in the library and the laboratories and the classrooms. Learning also comes through ancillary activities. I have a broader view of what constitutes a learning environment, and athletics and social activities are among those areas," President Philip E. Austin said, opening the hearing.

Austin, and virtually all of the 19 speakers who followed him to the microphone, reiterated the message that has been trumpeted often lately: there will be no upgrade to the football program if it detracts from the academic enterprise.

And that, said state Sen. Donald Williams, D-Thompson, co-chair of the subcommittee, is what the group wanted to discover. The meeting, held in the Student Union, was called by Williams and other members of the higher education subcommittee of the legislature's Appropriations Committee.

Williams said he called the hearing because the subcommittee, which makes recommendations on state appropriations for UConn's operating budget, would not otherwise have a chance to assuage their concerns before the legislature convenes in special session to discuss the football upgrade and whether to approve more than $100 million in bonding for construction of a stadium. The 35,000-seat arena has been proposed for University property off North Eagleville Road. Most of those within the UConn community who are skeptical of the move are concerned the upgrade would decrease funding for academic support.

Speaker after speaker, however, said it would do nothing of the sort, starting with Austin, who affirmed his position that he would withdraw any and all requests for the upgrade if he thought it would take one penny away from academics or add to students' tuition and fee bills. He added that the trustees, in approving the upgrade at their meeting October 17, and Gov. John G. Rowland, who spoke at that meeting and pledged to support the stadium construction, have made the same commitment. Other speakers agreed, including Lew Perkins, athletic director, Peter Halvorson, chair of the University Senate executive committee, and Amy Woodward, vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government.

Speakers also said it was fitting that the football program upgrade to the nationally high-profile Division I-A will occur at the same time that the University rises to national prominence in academics and, through UConn 2000 and the new campus master plan, emerges as a national leader in campus rebuilding.

"UConn has been a very good institution for a long time. We have been a very good regional institution for a long time. Now, I think we've been given the opportunity to become a very good national institution, and I would hope that others will agree that upgrading our football program would enhance that opportunity," Austin told the legislators.

Other legislators present included Sen. Joseph Crisco Jr., D-Woodbridge, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee; Rep. Thomasina Clemons, D-Vernon, co-chair of the higher education subcommittee; Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield; Rep. Roger Michele, D-Bristol; and Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford.

Other speakers, one after another, extolled the abilities of an upgraded program to rejuvenate campus, adding to school spirit, fund-raising possibilities, and enrollment.

"I'm going to graduate next year, and when I do I want my degree to be an asset across the country. I want to see people light up when I say I went to UConn," said Amy Woodward, vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government. "Is the upgrade necessary? I don't know. I don't even know if that question is answerable. But I think it's positive and it's possible, and I think that's what matters."

Carlos Toro, a seventh semester HDFR major from Hartford, also urged the committee to support the upgrade. "When you apply to college, you know you're going to have homework and tests. What you ask is 'Is the food good there? Are there things to do there? Do they have a good football team? A good basketball team? What else are you going to do there?' It's the extra things that count when you're making a decision on where to go."

Richard Veilleux