News-Times op-ed, March 23, 2008

By James W. Schmotter

I recently testified before the Connecticut Department of Community and Economic Development on what shape an Economic Strategic Plan for the state should take.

As a former business school dean with economic development experience in other states, I agree that comprehensive planning is essential for Connecticut’s future economic vitality.  Never before has competition between nations, regions and states been keener.  Across the globe similar efforts are underway to identify and exploit comparative advantages.  The old adage of “Failing to plan means planning to fail” has never rung more true.

I also believe that the key to Connecticut’s future lies in the development of an educated workforce.  A bright economic future will depend on the creation of a broad range of jobs and careers in knowledge work, as well as on the preparation of knowledge workers to fill them.

Hence, the state’s institutions of higher education — community colleges, independent colleges and universities, UConn, and the four universities of the Connecticut State University System — are critical to attaining that bright future.

Let me amplify, through some examples from here at WCSU, how our public universities are fulfilling this role.

First, at this university we directly address the state’s workforce needs through our institutional mission: to provide education in professional areas and the fine arts on a strong intellectual foundation in the liberal arts. This includes degree programs in business, justice and law administration, nursing, social work, communication, management information systems, the sciences, and education.  We also emphasize the fine arts and have the only School of Visual and Performing Arts in the Connecticut State University System.  The Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism in 2006 reported that “the arts, film, history and tourism together account for over $14 billion in economic activity and 170,000 jobs annually.”

Thus we believe each and every one of our graduates — be she clarinetist or computer scientist, be he actor or accountant — enriches Connecticut’s collective workforce and citizenry.  And we believe that our liberal arts foundation develops the skills and habits of mind that will enable WCSU graduates to adapt to the as-yet-unknown challenges and opportunities that the 21st century will present.

Second, WCSU is committed to providing high academic quality, access and affordability for citizens of the state, who comprise 89.9 percent of our student body.  This attractive formula has produced enrollment increases of 5.6 percent overall in total student headcount and 13 percent in fulltime undergraduates since 2004.  We also play an important role in providing educational access to members of Connecticut’s emerging populations, who are largely students of color and recent immigrants.  Forty-nine percent of our full-time undergraduate students are first-generation college attendees, and we are working successfully in a number of partnerships to enhance their academic success. 

Two of these partnerships are particularly notable.  The “Building a Bridge” partnership with Bethel and Danbury High Schools has over the past four years measurably decreased the need for remedial college courses for its graduates and has also significantly increased persistence in college studies.  This partnership has attracted national attention.  And our new “Project Impact” grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation promises to develop new strategies for increasing academic success among our growing Latino population.  In this case as well, we are working closely with community organizations to achieve progress.

In addition to the preparation of our future workforce, Western Connecticut State University, like our sister public universities, improves local economic conditions today.  We provide valuable assistance to local businesses and organizations through the work of the Business Research Center of our Ancell School of Business.  This center organizes faculty-directed student teams to work on real world problems of local organizations.  These include large established companies such as Branson Ultrasonics and Boehringer Ingelheim as well as smaller enterprises such as Church Hill Classics and Marcus Dairy.  Not only does this program, which is required of all Ancell School students, provide free consulting help; it also makes our graduates more job-ready, thus increasing their productivity for hirers.  In 2005, WCSU students provided 50,000 hours of free labor to local organizations through internships and other experiential learning endeavors.

Universities like ours also contribute to the economic well-being of the state through the contributions we make to quality of life.  The economic development theorist Richard Florida has argued convincingly that quality of life and cultural resources are important in attracting and retaining the knowledge workers whom he calls the “creative class.”  We offer such resources to the greater Danbury community through the wide array of theater, music and art programs our School of Visual and Performing Arts presents.  These include not only our own talented student and faculty, but also world-renowned artists such as Chick Correa, James Earl Jones, and the Manhattan String Quartet.  Most of these performances are far more affordable than similar appearances at private-sector venues, and many of our student and faculty concerts, plays and exhibitions are free to the public.  In addition, WCSU last year joined into a partnership with the City of Danbury to create a public authority that will expand summer music and theatre offerings at the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, one of the most attractive outdoor performing arts venues in the Northeast.

Finally, Western Connecticut State University, again like our sister institutions, provides direct economic benefits to our region.  A recent study demonstrated that, employing standard economic multipliers, WCSU in 2005 contributed an output of goods and services to the region totaling $213.6 million.  When compared to our state appropriation for that year, this output represents a return of $3.75 for every state dollar invested, an excellent rate of return.

In the development of any plan to ensure Connecticut’s future economic vitality, our public universities must be front and center.  We in the Connecticut State University System are eager to continue — and to expand — our role in this effort. 

James W. Schmotter is president of Western Connecticut State University.

WestConn hosts a town meeting on Monday, March 24 at which residents will be invited to discuss the issues of higher education and its importance to the future of the region and the state. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in Warner Hall, Room 102, on the Midtown campus, 181 White St., Danbury.

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