Dr. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, a UConn history professor who also served as chair of the West Hartford Board of Education, has been selected as director of the UConn’s new Hartford Campus.
By Ronni Newton
The University of Connecticut vacated West Hartford in late August when it opened the new downtown campus in Hartford to great fanfare, but along with the move the campus gained a new leader with strong West Hartford roots.
Dr. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, a UConn history professor who is also founding Director of El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean & Latin American Studies, was named director of UConn Hartford and assumed his new role on Aug. 23, the same day that the campus officially opened.
“This is so unbelievably exciting,” Overmyer-Velazquez said as, less than two weeks into his tenure, he provided a tour of the new main campus building at 10 Prospect St. and other surrounding spaces like the Hartford Public Library – located diagonally across the street – where the first floor will be used as classroom space and to house joint collections.
According to an announcement from UConn regarding the opening, the campus comprises a total of 232,000 square feet of “learning and community space,” about 160,000 of which is in the main building. UConn’s School of Social Work is now located a block away at 38 Prospect St., and in between the two buildings, at the corner of Prospect Street and Front Street is the university’s bookstore – a brand new Barnes & Noble that includes a Starbuck’s cafe. It’s within shouting distance of Infinity Hall and the Spotlight Theatres, just some of the downtown establishments that will now be partnering with UConn.
“UConn Hartford is not only brick, mortar, and steel. It is a living, breathing institution at the core of this city,” UConn President Susan Herbst said at the opening of the new campus on Aug. 23. “It will be part of the backbone of Hartford: a place of learning, engagement and discovery, and a vibrant part of this neighborhood and the capital city as a whole.
In order to create adequate space in the main building, a historical landmark which formerly housed the Hartford Times, a new attached five-story structure was built. The iconic Beaux-Arts façade of the 1920 structure was retained, and augmented with columns and cornices salvaged from a Manhattan church, Overmyer-Velazquez said.
Four U.S. presidents, including John F. Kennedy who gave a speech in 1960 attended by tens of thousands of people, have visited the building. Inside, artwork pays homage to some of that history.
The interior of the main building has lots of spaces that afforded naming opportunities, Overmyer-Velazquez said. Some of those recognizable names, like Zachs and Mortenson, maintain the university’s strong relationship with and ties to West Hartford.
There were many reasons for the move, including the estimated cost to update the West Hartford campus. The Town of West Hartford has been considering purchase of that property for more than a year.
For students, the campus move is a dramatic shift from the bucolic and leafy suburban tract where the school had been located since 1970 to a vibrant and walkable downtown environment that’s also easy to reach through public transportation. Being downtown and near many businesses as well as state organizations, Overmyer-Velazquez said, affords more accessible opportunity for internships and work study at places like the Hartford Public Schools, the Hartford Public Library, Hartford City Hall, the Legislative Office Building, and Charter Oak Cultural Center.
The current menu of available classes is similar to what was offered in West Hartford, but Overmyer-Velazquez said that immediately there will be opportunity to shift content of some of those classes.
For the neighborhood, the infusion of 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students and approximately 300 employees will have major impact.
“A lot of restaurants are happy to have us here,” said Overmyer-Velazquez.
On a personal level, Overmyer-Velazquez said that although he’s a bit sad to leave teaching, he’s thrilled about the new path his career is taking.
On Tuesday night, he resigned his role as chair of the West Hartford Board of Education in order to accommodate his new position, but will remain a member until his term expires in November. He said that even before accepting the new job, he had already decided not to run for re-election this year.
Overmyer-Velazquez, who recently was promoted to a full professor, said he found out about the job opportunity in April. “I’m in Lima, Peru, at a conference, and I got a call from a senior administrator asking if I wanted to apply for this,” he said. A national search was being conducted and his first thought was that it was a really big step, until he considered that his experience as an academic, as a community leader, and as chair of the Board of Education combined for the perfect background and it made all the sense in the world.
“My whole summer was connected to preparation for this job,” he said.
Overmyer-Velazquez is still getting oriented, learning his way around and meeting and making connections with staff and students, but he’s also set some short- and long-term goals.
“Fundamental is making sure that our students have a successful, dynamic educational experience here, in connection with an urban experience,” he said. “We want to bridge the university campus and the city as partners in education.”
He also plans to maintain the university’s ties to West Hartford. “Concretely, I’m excited to continue working with the West Hartford school board, to work with the schools” on a variety of programs.
Making sure that UConn students and faculty adapt to the urban setting is an initial focus, and Overmyer-Velazquez said that while some might be put off by the urban setting, “they need to get here and once they see how beautiful and accessible this is, that anxiety will fade.”
Access via bus makes getting there easier, and the new U-Pass, introduced by CTtransit this summer, makes travel between UConn’s campuses much easier, enabling students to combine their college experience in the urban downtown setting as well as at the rural main campus in Storrs. No matter where the classes are taken, “it’s one university,” he said.
Overmyer-Velazquez reports directly to Interim Provost Jeremy Teitelbaum, and said he will also be working closely with UConn President Susan Herbst who maintains an office right down the hall and considers the new campus an important move.
“The Board of Trustees are super-excited about this,” Overmyer-Velazquez said of the new downtown campus. “We want to make the student experience the best it can be.”
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!