Higher education shakeup plan draws critics, including lawmakers

An estimated $4.5 million in potential savings and lingering concerns over management of the state university system weren’t enough to overcome the skepticism of many legislators and college officials about Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed shakeup in higher education Thursday.

Members of the higher Education Committee and dozens of the people who testified on the proposal at the state Capitol Thursday said reorganization may be warranted, but a study is needed first to create a well-thought out strategic plan.

“It doesn’t take long for change to ruin something quickly that we have spent years building up,” said Rep. Janice R. Giegler, R-Danbury. “We are involving a lot of people in this consolidation.”

Malloy’s proposal would combine the central offices and governing boards at the state’s community colleges, Connecticut State University System, the online Charter Oak State College and the State Department of Higher Education under one Board of Regents.

CSUS t-shirts

Connecticut State University System faculty members unpack T-shirts to distribute to CSUS supporters at the Capitol Thursday

Collectively, there are almost 100,000 students who attend the affected institutions and 6,700 full-time employees.

The leaders of the Higher Education Committee said Thursday they have strong concerns about the proposal.

“We are talking about restructuring without a plan. That is an issue I have,” said Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury and co-chair of the committee. “I have serious concerns with the disruption this will have.”

Malloy, talking with reporters while the hearing was going on in the next room, disagreed.

“I am just not one of those folks that believes you go out and study everything and quite frankly I worry people who want this study really just want to kill it,” he said.

Malloy agrees a strategic plan is “long overdue” but the absence of one should not delay reorganization. A proposal requiring the Board of Governors for Higher Education create a plan by January 2013 is being considered by the committee, but finding the money to pay for it may prove to be difficult.

Malloy added the shakeup is needed because the state is spending more on administration in higher education “then just about any other state in the nation. We need to save millions of dollars. We believe we can fairly quickly save $4.5 million. We need to be in a position to consolidate and downsize state’s government rapidly.”

The $4.5 million anticipated annual projected savings did catch the attention of lawmakers, who are faced with closing a massive budget deficit.

“What’s appealing is the cost savings,” Willis said.

But those that testified said the anticipated savings is small compared to the $143.5 million Malloy is proposing cutting in state support to the public colleges and universities over the next two years.

“If there aren’t any savings, then people will say why bother,” echoed Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford and Willis’s co-chair. Bye said she does have concerns with the proposal but supports it with a few modifications.

Michael Meotti, commissioner of higher education, told the committee the savings — which he said would be $4.3 million annually — would be realized from merging the central offices at the various institutions, and shedding 24 of the 200 central office employees by next July.

“We are convinced the savings here will move down to the campuses,” he said. “The intent is to certainly take advantage of shared services” at the various institutions.

The colleges, Meotti said, would get to keep any savings realized and lawmakers could require those savings be spent on faculty. Meotti estimates the savings will be enough for campuses to hire at least 50 additional faculty members, a welcome change for many concerned too much is being spent on administration and outside the classroom.

A 2009 report by the state Department of Higher Education said 52 percent of CSUS full-time equivalent staff are non-faculty positions. Non-faculty employment is 48 percent at the community colleges and 67 percent at the University of Connecticut.

CSUS student

Caitlin Corbett, a sophomore at Western Connecticut State University, testifies

UConn is not included in the governor’s reorganization plan–another concern of many lawmakers.

Over the last 20 years, as enrollment increased by 24 percent at the public institutions, there were 1,955 new faculty positions created compared with an additional 3,993 non-faculty positions, according to the SDHE report. Malloy is proposing requiring that all non-teaching hiring at the state’s public colleges and universities be approved by his budget office in an effort to curb this trend.

Meotti and the Higher Education Committee chairs insist that repeated management problems at CSUS were not the impetus for reorganization. But during the hours-long public hearing, witnesses repeatedly referenced the double-digit raises approved for top administrators, paying the equivalent of two full-time presidents’ salaries at Southern Connecticut State University after one president’s questionable dismissal, and the rising cost of administration at the system.

“It was an unfortunate period of time for higher education,” Meotti said, but he said the merger plan was “not meant to punish people for perceived misdeeds.”

Witnesses also raised questions about whether the reorganization would even save money.

“Those are speculative savings,” said former longtime CSUS chancellor William J. Cibes Jr. “I am not certain there are going to be a lot of savings.” (Cibes is a member of the board of The Connecticut Mirror’s publisher.)

James LoMonaco, president of the 700-member faculty organization at CSUS, said he has studied public management structures and has concluded the other states that have reorganized have incurred major costs. He said the other state’s reorganizations also were done over a few years, not a few months as Malloy is proposing.

“If you fail to plan then you are planning for failure,” he said.

That comment drew applause from many in the hearing room audience–including dozens of people wearing bright lime green t-shirts reading ‘CSU is the solution’. About 150 students and employees from the four CSUS campuses were bused to the state Capitol for the hearing.

But Meotti defended his savings estimate, calling it “very conservative,” and said as long as the reorganization is done with cost-savings in mind, savings will be realized.

John A. Doyle, a trustee at CSUS, told the committee that creating a huge bureaucratic Board of Regents will make it difficult to get each school’s needs met.

“Issues will not be served by stacks of paper piling up on a board of regents desk,” he said, slamming down his hand on the witness table. “This is a scheme in search of a justification.”

csus leadership

CSUS Trustee John Doyle with Acting Chancellor Louise Feroe: ‘This is a scheme in search of a justification’

He continued calling the proposal a “bad idea” and that it would “reap unintended consequences.”

Higher education governance structure varies widely across the nation, a recent report by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee staff says, and there is no approach that has proven most effective.

Caitlin Corbett, a sophomore at Western Connecticut State University studying political science, told the committee she has her own thesis of what the impact will be.

“It will devalue our degrees,” she said, worried it will become an overpriced community college degree.

“The CSU system is already so great, it needs to be preserved,” she said.