UBelong Together, Post Chronicles Finch’s Frost Toward University

UB aerial
University of Bridgeport campus

From Brian Lockhart, CT Post:

The University of Bridgeport banners lining Park Avenue at the seaside campus read: “A World of Opportunities.”

For Democratic Mayor Bill Finch, UB’s 56 acres, 4,877 students and 900 employees might as well be a world away, not in the city’s South End.

Finch fancies himself a forward thinker when it comes to running Connecticut’s largest municipality, but his relationship with one of Bridgeport’s most prominent institutions is mired two decades in the past.

The feud dates to the early 1990s, when then-councilman Finch strove mightily and unsuccessfully to stop the controversial Unification Church–the “Moonies”–from coming to the bankrupt UB’s rescue in exchange for 60 percent of the seats on the board of trustees.

Finch, formerly the university’s assistant director of alumni relations, shared critics’ views that the church was a dangerous, brainwashing cult that wanted UB as a recruitment machine. He then fought to try to have the state strip UB’s accreditation.

“These guys came in and were pretty vicious,” recalled Michael Stratton, the attorney who worked with Finch and others to fight the bailout in court. “They held no prisoners and wanted that institution … (And) these banks getting paid off were very powerful people who wanted these loans paid off and made damn sure we weren’t able to establish our case.”

But since the late 1990s the school has been able to stand on its own financially. And the city’s and state’s movers and shakers, from Connecticut’s congressional delegation on down to local public school officials and business leaders, have long-since embraced UB as a partner.

Attended the annual, Finch-supported Gathering of the Vibes music festival at Seaside Park? Organizers use UB for housing and other amenities.

UB still faces challenges. Bloomberg Businessweek recently listed the university 17th on a list of the top 20 colleges with high tuition and low rates of return, behind Sacred Heart University in Fairfield (8th) and the University of New Haven (15th).

The university vigorously disputed the findings as flawed, telling Bloomberg 100 percent of graduates from two of its most prominent majors–dental hygiene and design–landed positions in last summer’s brutal jobs market.

“What it is today … is an incredible turnaround story,” said Paul Timpanelli, CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.

Meanwhile Finch spent the last 20 years nurturing his contempt.

Imagine, some say, what UB could be if the mayor embraced the school as a partner to boost economic development and improve education?

“It’s just sad. It’s personal and counter productive for the good of Bridgeport,” said Christopher Shays, a resident and former Republican congressman who delivered UB’s 1997 commencement address. “It’s making the job of the university more difficult, to the detriment of the city.”

Finch avoids the campus and leaves unavoidable official interactions with the UB community to subordinates.

In April, for example, UB hosted a national gymnastics championship attended by Democrats U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Dannel Malloy. Finch, according to school officials, sent City Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133.

“We have made it very clear to the mayor and various members of his administration he is welcome any time,” said Mary-Jane Foster, UB’s vice president of university relations for the past few years. Co-founder of the Bridgeport Bluefish, Foster is a Finch ally turned political opponent.

Some consider Finch’s current behavior an improvement; at least, they say, he is no longer publicly bad-mouthing the school, like in 2009 when he lamented to Hearst Newspapers that the city deserves a strong university, not one run by “a criminal organization.”

“When Finch first came in (to the mayor’s office in 2007) this was a big topic of conversation and he said some things, they said some things,” recalled Joseph McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County, who helps advise the city on economic matters.

Finch had said he might revisit his stance on UB once Korean minister Sun Myung Moon, the Moonies’ leader, died.

Moon died in September.

Asked last week if his administration’s icy relationship with UB has since thawed, Finch smiled and said, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say,” Finch responded when further pressed on whether UB is a resource for building the city’s economy.

Lennie Grimaldi, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who ran his successful 2000 race for state Senate, said Finch is a stubborn man.

“It can be a blessing because he’s extremely dogged in wanting to get things done for the city,” said Grimaldi, host of the online Only in Bridgeport news site. “But he can be also so stubborn that sometimes he doesn’t always see the larger picture.”

Appeals to Finch’s office for a more substantive explanation of his views resulted in a statement from spokesman Elaine Ficarra that emphasized the city and university have “a strong, collaborative relationship.” She cited pavement and sidewalk repairs and other streetscape improvements; a joint project to repair a softball diamond within adjacent Seaside Park for use by both high school and UB girls’ teams; and educational collaborations with Bridgeport’s public schools, including offering seniors free college-level courses.

Foster and George Estrada, UB’s associate vice president for facilities and safety, acknowledged UB works well with city agencies and, if not Finch, staff in his office. And Finch tapped Estrada, Bridgeport’s former director of facilities, to sit on the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission.

“I get nothing but cooperation from the city when we deal with them on everything from public safety issues to construction projects,” Estrada said. “To me if the mayor really was to object there was a relationship, there wouldn’t be one at all.”

But Foster said regardless of the support UB enjoys from other city entities, the mayor does damage by withholding his endorsement.

“We’d be in an even better place than we are,” she said. “We can do it without him. But having the mayor as your advocate is by far better.”

Shays agreed, arguing Finch has the power and influence to “make things happen” for the mutual benefit of UB and the city.

“Reverend Moon passed away. He doesn’t have to wrap his arms around the church. He just has to wrap his arms around the university,” he said.

Judith Greiman, long-time head of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, declined to comment specifically on the Finch/UB feud.

“Sometimes there are little spats about construction, sometimes about noisy students. But I’d say generally communities embrace the colleges in them,” she said. “And it’s helpful to have a close working relationship with the chief elected official in any college town.”

Greiman said such symbiotic alliances help attract major tax-paying employers and aid universities in their efforts to grow and improve.

“Colleges bring people into the municipality. People are visiting campus, spending dollars,” Greiman said.

According to a UB economic impact study, alumni, faculty, students and visitors contribute $47 million to Bridgeport’s $3 billion economy.

Phil Kuchma, the local developer who is partnering with the city to revitalize the downtown, said the city must do more to link that neighborhood with the UB community, which is within walking distance.

“I understand all of us in life may have something that’s a strong belief of our own. I can respect the mayor’s belief but there has to be a way he can put that in perspective to what the big picture might be,” Kuchma said.

Grimaldi said he has witnessed other Finch relationships sour, then improve, and believes there is still a chance the mayor can embrace UB.

“I’d like to see the business community weigh in more and try to figure something out,” Grimaldi said.

McGee and Timpanelli said they have tried.

“Everybody from the mayor’s staff to me to his wife have tried to talk to him about making that relationship better, and failed,” Timpanelli said.

McGee said it did not help when Foster challenged Finch in the 2011 mayoral primary.

“If the university wanted to embrace him, would you run one of your senior people against him?” McGee said.

Foster is optimistic about Finch’s recent decision to hire David Kooris as head of planning and economic development and what that means for redeveloping the South End and collaborating with UB.

“He’s smart, talented, highly educated, not a political animal. He’s a, ‘What’s the highest, best use and how do we get it done’ guy,” she said.

Stratton still believes the fight to stop the Unification Church’s bailout of UB was worthwhile.

“I can’t quantify it, but the ability of the church to go to these small, third world countries and say ‘join and you can put up with our nonsense and go to America some day and beautiful Bridgeport on the water’ was a carrot to cause a lot of human misery,” he said.

But his current perspective on UB has mellowed. Stratton now likens it to a casino–it has benefits for the local economy but a dark side.

“Looking from a pragmatic point of view, it’s part of a texture of Bridgeport which is not in any way ideal, but we’re trying to cobble together a functional city, so you have to put up with some less-than-ideal things,” Stratton said.

But Stratton is willing to defend Finch for sticking to his principles over the past 20 years.

“He’s not going to allow politics or pragmatic thinking to dominate his behavior,” Stratton said. “If Bill wasn’t doing this, what would they try to get away with down there? Now we have sort of our ‘top cop’ as mayor of Bridgeport and it keeps us all safe. It gives a check and balance.”

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22 comments

  1. McGee said it did not help when Foster challenged Finch in the 2011 mayoral primary.

    “If the university wanted to embrace him, would you run one of your senior people against him?” McGee said.

    Joe McGee’s comments made sense up to the point he made above–sounds like an observation made by someone as blind as Mr. Magoo. During my first meeting with Mary-Jane Foster at Harborview Market, among the first questions I dared ask Mary-Jane was: What effects will her decision to run for mayor have on UB and if she had consulted with UB officials. Mary-Jane Foster told me her employer was among the first people she notified regarding her mayoral aspiration. As I recall she added she had requested a leave of absence and she knows how to separate her personal and professional responsibilities.

    Mary-Jane Foster was NOT put up as a mayoral candidate by UB. To anyone who makes such a statement, I say: UB lying.

  2. Can anyone tell us about the money, first? It came from a Moon organization. Was it repaid in a timely fashion? Is UB in any financial obligation or responsibility to any Moon organization today?

    What about the governance aspects from years ago, have they changed, or are they the same as when Bill Finch was fighting the financial and governance change? What and who is Stratton referencing about “getting away with down there?” Why is a ‘top cop’ needed? (Is staying on top of the UB story what keeps him from understanding and living up to the current Charter language?) How is Mayor Finch’s attitude or stand ‘keeping us safe?’ Perhaps the article in the CT Post will stimulate some answers. Or maybe OIB writers will. Time will tell.

  3. John, if you check you will find Stratton is just another lawyer/lapdog to the Finch administration. I too wonder what he meant by “what’s going on down there.” To Mr. Stratton, get off your ass and find out before you make dumb-ass comments.
    Joe McGee is helping the city with economic development??? Hows that going, Joe??? I hope he is not getting paid for his help. BTW McGee, the law of the land allows citizens to run for political office or haven’t you heard that? Hey McGee, who said UB wanted MJF to run for office? Another piece of bullshit you are putting out.
    These people listed here with the exception of MJF and Grimaldi are among the group that has screwed up Bridgeport for years.
    George, see a chiropractor so you can get that up and down swivel on your head fixed, either that or audition for a bobble-head job.
    These people truly suck!!

    1. Andy’s right. The question should be what’s going on at City Hall, not UB. And the stench coming from Estrada is P.U. Blech. Where’s yahooy on this? Didn’t he go to UB?

  4. It is hard for me to fathom what could be motivating Bill Finch to hold on to an archaic grudge against the University, and what reasonable justification he could offer for doing so. To my eye and to many, I would conclude, it looks like nothing more than sour grapes. Anyone with even a shard of savvy into the Human Condition would draw a similar conclusion. Yet this is our leader, our chief elected official, and he is continuing to throw a worn-out hissy fit. This battle is lost, and now he really is just looking like an obstructionist fool without a modicum of a clue as to what a worthy cause looks like.

    I for one am insulted if Finch thinks we cannot smell the stink, and I am absolutely mortified if he has actually talked himself into believing his position is relevant to anything other than his own narcissistic need for self aggrandizement.

    We are on to you, give it up and pay attention to what really matters to the peeps who hired you, Bill.

    1. The idea of Mary-Jane Foster running for the office of Mayor was part of the problem for Mayor Finch (a comment by Joe Mcgee) is absurd. Foster may have been an actress in her past but her life was not intended to be an extra in the Lifetime movie Bill Finch–although I have to believe Finch’s intentions many years ago were on the money with his issue against Rev. Moon’s organization. Many years, his death and water has gone under the bridge. Today, The University of Bridgeport has been showing signs of immense improvement, not quite the way it was in the early ’80s but still it has improved quite considerably. The University is key to any type of positive economic development in the South End. To think otherwise is ignorant. Bridgeport’s waterfront in the South End is prime real estate. There are a few proposals of an upscale nature that have been proposed for acreage surrounding the U.B. campus. To think a first-rate institution embraced by the City of Bridgeport would not spur development is ridiculous. I would first go after the two elected officials who have been voted in as representatives of the South End. Why they are not pressuring the Mayor to embrace U.B. is curious and shows their lack of leadership. I cannot believe the Mayor would not change his negative opinions before development is totally stalled in the South End. Putting our eggs in Downtown and Steelepointe is nice. The City of Bridgeport is more than Downtown and Steelepointe. The University of Bridgeport should be seen as a magnet for development. Let’s get with the program and all support this institution.

  5. Hey mayor, if UB left tell me how you would find work for the 900 UB employees and how would you replace the $47 million it adds to our economy.
    Bill, you have been fired from other jobs so losing your job at UB should not be still eating at you for over 20 years.

  6. Andy,
    Finch has had a priapism for UB for 20 years. He should be worried about his other ED problem. Economic Development!
    He has openly worked against UB. A couple of years ago he tried to sabotage UB by encouraging a group to have their conference at Fairfield University.

    We have Global Intellectual Capital at UB and this phony Bill stiffs our city. He is a Counterfeit Bill, who became a cult unto himself with his anti-cult position. Where would the crack-ridden South End have been in the early ’90s? Bill, who claims he is an atheist but takes Communion like it is a photo-op should be more concerned with a couple of other criminal enterprises like the Diocese of Bridgeport and Joe Ganim.

    Joe Magee thinks Bridgeport should be the bedroom community for Stamford. No word from Panuzio on this one. He must have put in another bid for lobbying services for Bridgeport.

  7. “Lennie Grimaldi, a longtime friend of the mayor who ran his successful 2000 race for state Senate, said Finch is a stubborn man.”

    Lennie is the kind–one who tells you honestly what he thinks–of friend I like having. It’d be nice if his pal Finch joined us on this topic of the webzine and expressed his feelings on Grimaldi. Then again, a real pal would spend some advertising dollars on a buddy’s webzine.

  8. *** What will his greenness blame on the Moonies next to justify his dislike for one of Bpt’s raw gems? UB needs to step it up with school pride by marking all their boundaries and campus grounds with their school colors, purple and white everywhere! “PURPLE KNIGHTS PRIDE!” ***

  9. I re-read the Post article and read the comments by Michael Stratton crying about the lawyers for the unification church. Stratton stated the following “They held no prisoners and wanted that institution … (And) these banks getting paid off were very powerful people who wanted these loans paid off and made damn sure we weren’t able to establish our case.” BOO HOO what did you think they were going to do, send in first-year lawyers or better yet law students? Mr. Stratton you could not establish your case because you did not have one. Here is another piece of shit from Stratton:

    Looking from a pragmatic point of view, it’s part of a texture of Bridgeport which is not in any way ideal, but we’re trying to cobble together a functional city, so you have to put up with some less-than-ideal things,” Stratton said.

    Stratton, are you kidding me? UB has worked like hell to get back to this point so tell me Mr. Big Shot what is less than ideal about it? Bullshit and more bullshit from Stratton and not an iota of proof, just another silver-tongued lawyer spewing words with no facts. Go back to the ‘burbs please.

  10. Finch’s attitude towards UB is further evidence he is nothing more than a cheap-shoe jerk. When I was in graduate school there in the ’70s, there were 12,000 students. The campus was vital. The campus was busy. The neighborhood was still marginal. BUT the campus was EDUCATING 12,000 people who went out and did good things while supporting themselves. Some really bad decisions were made causing the core student body to quickly disappear and the University died. Sacred Heart picked up the slack and thrived. For nearly 20 years the campus vacillated.

    Now some really good decisions are being made and the University seems to be reemerging. UB could very well return to its prominence. Because Finch is an insufferable jerk he fails to recognize the impact the new UB could have on the community and the area. The irony is UB cannot attain its goals without community involvement.

  11. I blame the State of Connecticut. They could have stepped in and taken over the Univ. of Bridgeport, made it the Univ. of Conn. downstate campus (a turnkey operation). Instead, Mayor Malloy of Stamford stepped in and made a campus in Stamford. Seeing this, the UB law school became Quinnipiac Law School. If Rell had stepped in and made UB into UConn it would have been a home run for Bridgeport. But this is your government dollars hard at work.

  12. Forget about the past history of UB and look at what it is NOW. People are coming from all over the world to attend this highly ranked university. They are ahead of the game in attracting students for majors that are unique; such as Karate–this degree, although it may seem like fun, is an entry into work in criminal justice and also allows students to enter the military with rank; the chiropractic school is one of the best in the country; their Physicians Assistants program has a waiting list; and did you know the top Fortune 500 companies look to UB for engineering graduates because of their incredible training and because of their linguistic skills? UB also has a strong relationship with the Bridgeport Public Schools, especially the Swing School, offering faculty and student expertise in Chinese, poetry, art and design, and music. UB is a wonderfully diverse campus our other partner universities can’t match. Bridgeport and Mayor Finch should be promoting this University every day instead of claiming the “Moonies” run the place. Get your facts–all of them–straight.

  13. Maximizer: The one thing Bill Finch has not been able to do for the past five years is get his facts straight. He really knows very little about what’s going on as witnessed at his debates with MJF. If Wood and others did not text him information at the debates he would have looked like the dummy he is. BTW great article, thank you.

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