UConn’s Torrington campus — once the ‘crown jewel’

The loss of UConn’s Torrington campus would be a cultural travesty.

In late 2004, I was temporarily hired to promote the Torrington campus by then-new director, Michael Menard, who came to Litchfield County, flush with a UConn Ph.D. in English, after positions as director of educational outreach at the main Storrs campus, and senior vice provost liaison to all five regional campuses. Torrington was the first he oversaw solo and he quickly realized that despite being the smallest, the campus was in fact UConn’s crown jewel for literature and arts. Yet few knew it existed. 

Determined to get area towns to feel the love, plus gain respect from the larger UConn entity, the creative Dr. Menard ginned up a small stipend for a PR writer dedicated to Torrington, thus bypassing the entrenched PR machine at Storrs, which aced sports stories but didn’t prioritize the uniqueness of regional campuses. Menard knew that campuses in Waterbury, West Hartford and Stamford had strengths appealing to urban/business interests, while Avery Point on Long Island Sound appeals to interests in marine biology. But Torrington was rare in its ability to draw from the significant presence of world renowned artists and literati through The Litchfield County Writers Project (LCWP), a writers’ archive begun by Adrienne Lyon in 1994 and expanded into a full interactive teaching program between writers and students under the aegis of Davyne Verstandig, a popular full-time lecturer and published poet. 

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Promoting the campus was long-view, intended to embed Torrington in UConn’s metamind as indispensable, but also draw students from other campuses for offerings unavailable elsewhere. 

The promotional effort worked perhaps too well. Gleaning the gestalt of Torrington was easy, but beyond lay vast bureaucratic corridors and egotistical territorialities. The more successful we became, the more covetous eyes seemed to focus on us.

Within six months, the steady thrum created serious buzz that something unusual was happening in Torrington. Features appeared in all Tri-state papers, Connecticut Magazine and the New York Times. Broadcast stations now included Torrington in their daily/weekly calendars. The Litchfield County Times changed format to dedicate all of page two to stories about campus events. Included, free and open to the public, across a dizzying array of genres were appearances by Litchfield County writers Frank McCourt, A.R. Gurney, Francine duPlessix Gray, Frank Delaney, Charles VanDoren, Dani Shapiro, Rozanna Robinson, Rose Styron, Honor Moore, David Rabe, Candice Bushnell, Burton Bernstein and Bill C. Davis, among others. There were poetry readings by Susan Kinsolving and acclaimed actor Jack Gilpin. The campus auditorium was packed. Book signings followed; the campus book store made money. 

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The gravitational pull reached other artistic sectors. With kaleidoscopic effect, writer/filmmaker Rebecca Miller — playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath’s daughter — curated an extensive exhibit of her mother’s work with photos never seen before. The exhibit reflected the many literati and artistic friends of Miller and Morath, bringing viewers into their Litchfield County homes/studios. There are intimate photos of Arthur Miller, writers William Styron, John Updike, Francine DuPlessix Gray, Janet Flanner, Jerzy Kosinsky, Andrei Vosnesensky, and Allen Ginsberg; and artists Hans Richter, Alexander Calder, Phillip Grausman, Peter Blum, and Tom Doyle. There’s a 1968 anti-Vietnam war rally in New Haven with the Reverend William Sloane Coffin and Arthur Miller, as well as photos of violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. 

The Morath exhibit is on “permanent loan,” likely with expectations of remaining local. Other artists have donated — or are considering donating — works. There was also talk in 2005 of creating permanent archives in Torrington for county writers’ literary papers to keep their legacies local, which would have created visiting scholar research programs well into the future. It remains to be seen what will happen to the Morath exhibit and others in the event of the campus closing. But other lost opportunities are staggering.

The wider community also gravitated to campus with myriad events for civic/activist organizations and open mic nights for poetry readings/music. There was a good cafeteria, plus the increased activity spilled over to off-campus restaurants/shops. The whole effort was a regional force multiplier.

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By 2005, when my stipend ended, high benchmarks had been met and self-perpetuating momentum was anticipated. But just as people and press were finally oriented toward campus, things shifted. A decision was made to take many of the LCWP events downtown to the Warner Theatre, which diffused energy away from campus. The shift never succeeded. After 2012, when a new director came on, the LCWP took a hiatus from interactive passions, returning mostly to archival activities. Around that same time, Dr. Menard spread his wings to Hartford, although he managed both campuses for a short time. All of the wind under these carefully crafted sails gradually deflated. Today the campus is off radar again, getting column space mostly for its possible demise. 

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UConn Torrington captured lightning in a bottle once. Generating it again takes more money for local outreach, not less. Closing the campus ripples far beyond taxes saved, if any, given how money is spent elsewhere in the UConn system. The real crown jewel now lies neglected under distant bureaucratic dust, unjustly punished for not shining.

B. Blake Levitt is an award-winning science writer/author who lives in Warren.