Malloy proposes a shakeup in higher education

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy outlined a plan Wednesday to merge Connecticut’s two largest higher education systems–the state university system and the community colleges–and the state’s online college under a single governing board, a proposal that he says will save millions.

Malloy’s proposal would combine the central offices of Connecticut State University Systems’ four regional universities, the dozen community colleges and Charter Oak State College and the state Department of Higher Education and a newly-created Board of Regents. The institutions collectively have almost 100,000 students.

The University of Connecticut is not affected by Malloy’s plan.

Proposals to reorganize higher education have been common over the years, but the $3.67 billion projected state budget deficit has brought the issue to the forefront.

“We have to push forward with these consolidations. We’ve got to make them work. They have to lead to a creation of efficiencies,” Malloy said Wednesday, noting he expects saving to begin in the second year of his two-year budget.

“We need to get a lot of the bureaucracy out of the way and to flatten the management of these systems. So what I am asking the legislature to do is look at a proposal that will have all of these systems [currently] governed by four different governing structures, let’s put them all in one,” Malloy said. “I believe our inability to turn on a dime with respect to the management of these systems and to lower our administrative costs has hurt us.”

Malloy also signaled that the fiscal autonomy the state’s public colleges have enjoyed may soon come to an end. He is recommending the new Board of Regents to develop a formula to distribute state funding to CSUS, the community colleges and Charter Oak based on outcomes such as graduation rates.

The state’s higher education universities have long received a set amount from the state through block grants, but last month a legislative panel recommended tying a portion of state funding to outcomes.

The state’s Higher Education Committee co-chairs and Higher Education Commissioner all support tying a portion of funding to outcomes.

“More and more needs to be done to tie [funding] to outcomes,” said Education Commissioner Michael Meotti, saying he has yet to determine what portion of funding should be tied to outcomes. “The bottom line is this proposal focuses on results. It’s a great start.”

But officials at the higher education institutions are still waiting for the details.

“I understand what he’s trying to do. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” said Richard Balducci, acting chairman of the CSUS Board of Trustees. “I know the governor has nothing but the best in mind for the men and women who attend our public colleges.”

Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the community colleges, said she is not certain savings will be realized.

“Having been through two previous mergers we know that savings are limited when you do this,” she said. “Any blending of organizations like this is difficult.”

Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury and co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, echoed those concerns but said she is awaiting more details from Malloy.

“I do have concerns about merging the community colleges with the other systems,” she said. “They are all very unique in terms of their missions. I like that distinctiveness. I don’t want that to be lost…Community colleges respond to their communities and the needs of their communities, and they do it very well.”

But the other higher education co-chair, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said Malloy’s plan was a reflection of the fiscal realities. “When you have limited resources, that will play a big role” in such overhauls winning approval, she said. “We certainly need a more unified system.”

Meotti said he is confident a merger can happen smoothly.

“Good managers can manage through transitions,” he said. “The purpose here is to have a cohesive governance structure.”

The targeted higher education units together have more than 4,400 full-time positions and receive more than $394.2 million from this year’s General Fund–some 2 percent of the total. The bulk of those dollars go to the CSUS ($162.5 million) and community college system ($158.5 million).

Malloy’s consolidation proposal is not the first to target higher education management, which has been a popular target for past administrations over the last two decades, particularly during tough fiscal times.

A 1990 panel charged with finding efficiencies in state government, commonly known as the Thomas Commission, recommended that the state’s community and technical colleges, which numbered 17 at the time, be merged into six “comprehensive” colleges.

A second panel, the Hull-Harper Commission, proposed a sweeping higher education reorganization plan that largely was rejected by the legislature in 1992. But lawmakers did approve a merger of the administrative functions of the community and technical colleges into one system — a move that reduced the overall number of colleges in the consolidated network from 17 to 12.

Citing “excessive position growth” in the community college and CSU systems, former Gov. John G. Rowland proposed merging the administrative structures of those two institutions in February 2002, estimating an annual savings of $5.1 million by the 2003-04 fiscal year. The plan failed to win approval.

The legislature’s chief investigative arm, the Program Review and Investigations Committee, recently concluded a study of the overall higher education governance structure in Connecticut and recommended tying a portion of funding to outcomes. They are expected to release a separate study focusing on questions about rate of job growth and potential duplication of services within the CSU system in the next month.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, whose caucus offered a 2008 plan to merge the departments of education and higher education, praised Malloy’s plan.

“I think it makes sense,” Williams said. “We want a unified system for higher education. We want convenience for students. We want them to be able to transfer credits easily. This is a great step in a positive direction.”

Malloy said his proposal is comparable to a system used in Minnesota, where public two- and four-year colleges operate under a single system.

Only a handful of states have undertaken major reorganizations of higher education systems, and the task should be approached with caution, said one leading expert on higher education governance.

“There is no evidence that centralization leads to better systems,” said Aims McGuinness, senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

McGuinness said before the state undertakes a massive change, lawmakers need to sort out the real problems being addressed.

“Will it lead to a more effective community college system? Does that really need to be reorganized? Does it lead to more effective leadership at Connecticut State University? Are there other alternatives? Does it leave in place an entity to look at the whole system from the point of view of the public interest?

“This is a major change,” he said. “It’s a mistake to think about copying any state…What was facing Minnesota has no relationship whatsoever to what is facing Connecticut.”

However the debate plays out, Bye, the higher education co-chairwoman, said it’s a long overdue debate and worthy of a full discussion.

The higher education committee has scheduled a hearing March 10 to review the governor’s proposal.

Reporter Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this story.