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Aronson Brings Experience, Commitment,
Humor to Top Finance Post
February 21, 2000

In a high school class in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1960s, a young woman reading the philosophy of John Stuart Mill paused when she came to the passage about securing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. From that time, she was hooked on the ideal of public service.

The seed sown then has led to a lifetime of service for Lorraine Aronson. It has seen her in leadership positions in Connecticut's state Department of Education, Department of Income Maintenance (as the social services department was known in the 1980s), and the state budget office, the Office of Policy and Management.

Aronson, now UConn's vice president for financial planning and management, oversees the University's combined budget of $925 million, the first time the budget for both the Storrs-based programs and the Health Center have been centrally administered.

It's a brand-new position, and one Aronson takes as a challenge.

"I have spent a chunk of my life dealing with big budgets - in the state department of Education, the state Department of Social Services, and with the state budget itself," she says. "The numbers piece of it is a challenge, but to me the real issue is that budgets must tell a story, and the story must speak to priorities and be sufficiently compelling to engender public support."

Aronson, who joined UConn from the Office of Policy and Management in 1995, is not only well acquainted with those priorities, she had a hand in developing them. As assistant to the chancellor, she coordinated efforts to implement the strategic plan and helped lead the campus master plan initiative. Since 1998, she has helped position the University with its external constituencies as associate vice president for institutional advancement.

Building Public Support
And, after years in the top echelons of state government, no one understands better what it takes to capture public support for a budget initiative. Paradoxically, in 1995 Aronson was the only person who testified against the legislation that would launch UConn 2000, the University's $1 billion program to renew, rebuild and enhance its campuses. "At the time, I was overseeing the state budget and it was often my job to say no," she says. "The philosophy was not at issue. It had to do with state's debt load and with maintaining options for the governor while the state budget worked its way through the legislative process."

Since then, Aronson has been intimately involved in the implementation of UConn 2000. She evaluates it with the same practical realism that once led her to express caution. "I think it's been a remarkable success," she says. "Talented students now want to be here. We've known for years that many accepted students were not coming here because of the way the campus looked. UConn 2000 has turned that around.

"I'm extraordinarily proud of the opportunity I've had to play a role in the rebuilding of this campus," she adds. "Most of what I have done in my life has involved elusive products - improving the quality of the state's primary and secondary school system, creating a new revenue structure for the state. It's an absolute delight for me to be able to walk outside and see bricks and mortar and think I've had something to do with it."

Streamlining Operations
Although she maintains offices both in Storrs and in Farmington, it is the Health Center that is occupying much of her attention right now.

She says there is much that can be done locally to address the financial issues, even though the forces buffeting the Health Center are partly a national phenomenon. "Nationally, academic medical centers are having severe financial problems, because in addition to the reduction in federal support and the impact of managed care - factors that affect all hospitals - they are simply more expensive programs," she says. "There is a cost to running educational programs in tandem with clinical care, but that's how you produce great physicians, dentists and researchers."

Undeterred by the challenge, Aronson and a team of senior administrators at the Health Center have developed an ambitious plan to streamline operations. "We are still in control of our fate, and there is a lot we can do to make sure that we are as efficient and cost-conscious as we can possibly be," she says.

Aronson says it's essential for the University's Storrs-based programs and the Health Center to work more closely together. "While in some ways we might have viewed the Storrs-based programs and the Health Center as separate entities, the world sees the name of UConn on all of it, so it is from the public's perspective a single commitment," she says.

Road to the Top
Harvard-educated, Aronson also holds a law degree from Boston University. But how did a lawyer end up in financial management? "My entire professional life I have been an outsider," she says. "I trained as a lawyer because I thought it would be a good skill set for public service. When I came to education, I was an outsider because I was a lawyer. When I went to the welfare department, I was an outsider because I was an educator. When I began doing budget work, I was an outsider because I was not a finance person. And when I came to the University, I was an outsider because I was a government bureaucrat, not an academic.

"The lesson I've taken from all this is that labels don't matter," she says. "It's hard work and willingness to keep learning that make the difference."

That practical approach enables Aronson to succeed as a woman in top management, in what is still largely a man's world. "I can't say I haven't experienced discrimination, because I have," she ponders, "but I don't define myself solely by gender. Maybe I've had to work harder, but I would have worked this hard had I been born male. It's just who I am."

Aronson says her forceful personality and her sense of humor have helped. "You cannot do high-pressure work without a sense of humor," she says.

"You also need colleagues who are partners," she adds. Aronson's closest partner, for nearly 15 years, has been her assistant, Debra Kapura. "Much of the success people attribute to me is actually Deb's work," she says. "It's not easy, but she makes me look good."

Aronson's adaptability and commitment to public service have also sustained her through administrations headed by governors of three different political persuasions: "One of the lessons I learned early in public life was the importance of establishing good relationships with everyone - on both sides of the aisle, advocates, administrators - because in a democracy the issue is balancing competing interests and every one of those interests is important in coming to some kind of balance. I suspect that approach is what led three governors of three different parties to invite me to join their management teams."

An Honorable Calling
Commitment to public service is a theme to which Aronson keeps returning. The daughter of two educators - her father was an English teacher and high school principal and her mother taught theater at a small college in Albany - she says she was "raised to believe nothing is more honorable than learning and sharing what you've learned with others. Public education to me is the highest value there is, both as an individual matter and as a societal matter."

Three years ago, she was appointed to the State Board of Trustees for the Hartford Public Schools, when the state took the unusual move of assuming oversight of the troubled school district. Aronson - with President Austin's blessing - gladly accepted the challenge. "This kind of public service is an important part of outreach mission of land-grant university," she says. "The future of this university depends on the success of urban education."

But for all her outstanding professional accomplishments, Aronson says the achievement of which she is most proud is a personal one. Two years ago, when she herself was embroiled in the controversy surrounding the possibility of building a football stadium for the University, her mother suffered a stroke and subsequently underwent heart bypass surgery. After two months in a hospital in Albany, says Aronson, she had lost the will to live. Aronson, going against medical advice, took her mother home and moved her to Connecticut. She is now doing well, receiving outpatient care at the Health Center.

And if that were not satisfaction enough, Aronson now can take pride in being involved in the administration of the Health Center. "It is a gift for me to be able to take my mother to get the best medical care in the state at the Health Center," she says, "and think I am contributing to making that care better."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu