Higher ed reorganization will help state regain its educational edge

(Sen. Beth Bye is co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. She represents Bloomfield, Burlington, Farmington, West Hartford)

For the last two months, as the public and legislators have debated Gov. Malloy’s proposed overhaul of our state university and community college system, I have been meeting with students, residents, business leaders and elected officials to argue that Connecticut’s greatest asset is its highly-trained and highly-educated workforce. National data has consistently ranked Connecticut near the top of the class in bachelors’ and advanced degree attainment.

But we are losing that status, and we need a plan to get back on top. The governor’s proposed higher education reorganization–as fine-tuned by the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee which I co-chair–will help Connecticut regain its educational edge and thrive in an increasingly global marketplace.

The basic problem as I see it is that Connecticut lacks a strategic plan for higher education which includes every public college and university. Such a plan is essential for our educational and employment progress. Connecticut must make our schools responsive to workforce needs, focus on increasing graduation rates, and find ways for schools to cooperate and work with–not against–each other.

But such a strategic plan only works when those who implement it are held accountable. Unfortunately, Connecticut’s current higher education organizational chart breeds division and allows for institutional self-interest to carry the day. Creating one Board of Regents (as the governor has suggested) responsible for a statewide plan–with input from each school but complete control by none-will ensure that the best interests of the entire system are protected.

Such fundamental change is not always well-received. I have spent time at all four CSU schools, and I have personally met or spoken with hundreds of faculty, students and college administrators. Because of these discussions, the Higher Education Committee has proposed some changes to the governor’s proposal.

For example, administrators said the governor’s office should not have total control over hiring. Faculty said the constant threat of an individual executive’s ability to move 15% in state funding between universities inhibits their planning. Students said they don’t want any new Board of Regents to be dominated by businesspeople and that they don’t want changes that will result in the loss of their school’s identity.

Each concern was heard, and each has been addressed in legislation now pending before the committee. Administrators will maintain some control. Faculty are able to plan. Students and alumni have voting spots on the Board. And those who worried that their school’s identity and autonomy would disappear should rest assured that protecting campus culture and maintaining creative control are a top priority for the governor and for this legislature, and are not harmed.

One financial benefit of the governor’s proposed overhaul is that an estimated $4.3 million is saved by eliminating duplicative administrative costs. Some of those savings could be put toward making our classrooms better for students by maintaining full-time faculty and access to the technology and support services which they see as vital.

2011 is not a year for the status quo, in Connecticut or anywhere else.  Doing “good enough” in the Land of Steady Habits has proven costly, and it is time we look at long-term solutions. Connecticut must do better. While our higher education system has not caused the problem, it can and should be part of a responsive, effective and efficient solution. That is what the governor’s bill, and the Higher Education Committee bill, seeks to achieve.

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