Research funds at risk from pensions, UConn president says

Published on Wednesday, 14 August 2019 19:41
Written by

The Associated Press

STORRS (AP) - The new president of the University of Connecticut has begun implementing a plan he hopes will double research spending in the next decade, but he warns that unfunded pension liability could hurt the school’s ability to attract and keep top researchers.

Thomas Katsouleas began his tenure at the state’s flagship school Aug. 1 and spoke Wednesday at his first Board of Trustees meeting.

Elevating UConn’s status as a top research institution is among his top priorities, he said. He hopes to increase the school’s research money from about $265 million to more than $500 million in federal grants and other funding within a decade.

“It’s a pretty fixed pie,” he told reporters after the meeting. “It’s not really shrinking, it’s pretty stable, but we’re going to get a bigger piece of that pie.”

But he also warned that UConn and its medical arm, UConn Health, are handicapped by an unfunded pension liability, which is estimated at $52 million this fiscal year.

That, he said, means the school’s costs in hiring research assistants are higher than at peer institutions and could lead to UConn losing competitive grants and, ultimately, researchers.

“The risk to losing faculty is real, and that would be the biggest harm to the university,” he said.

Katsouleas said he plans to work closely with the governor and legislature to solve that problem.

The board on Wednesday took a first step toward increasing UConn’s research profile by establishing a special committee to oversee research, entrepreneurship and innovation at the school.

It will be composed of board members and outside entrepreneurs, with the goal of supporting faculty and student research, accelerating funding for research projects and helping their transition into marketable businesses and products.

Katsouleas’ administration is charged with coming up with a five-year plan for venture development and transferring technology and ideas to the real world.

Doctoral students can’t be expected to go back and also acquire degrees in business administration, he said. But, he said, the school can give them access to business experts to help them with things such as licenses, patents and business plans.

Katsouleas said his does not expect the new emphasis on research and entrepreneurship will mean a great financial windfall for UConn.

But, he said, it can benefit the state’s economy, and more important, fulfills what he sees as the school’s role of passing along information, becoming a source of new knowledge and being an innovation engine.

“I think the leading universities of the 20th century play all three of those (roles), and UConn wants to be one of those leading universities,” he said. “Our mission is education research and patient care and we’re doing this to uplift the students and also to benefit society.”

Posted in New Britain Herald, State on Wednesday, 14 August 2019 19:41. Updated: Wednesday, 14 August 2019 19:44.