Malloy, legislators reach compromise on higher ed reorganization

The Malloy Administration and co-chairs of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee have reached agreement on a plan to consolidate the Connecticut State University System, the state’s community colleges, the on-line Charter Oak College and the State Department of Higher Education beginning this July.

The consolidation was part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s budget proposal, but Higher Education Committee co-chairwoman Rep. Roberta Willis and other legislators balked at the proposal, saying Malloy’s plan did not specify how savings would be achieved and threatened the distinct missions of the institutions. They also questioned the exclusion of the flagship University of Connecticut from the reorganization.

But after an hours-long meeting Tuesday night between the administration and critics, Willis said her concerns were addressed.

“The constituent units will keep their distinct missions, that was my main concern,” she said. “I think they listened to my concerns… I’m over being Fierce Roberta.”

Legislators’ concerns spilled over earlier this week into the Appropriations Committee, which led leadership not to bring the consolidation proposal up for a vote before their deadline.

Mark Ojakian of the Office of Policy and Management, who is in charge of the reorganization for the Malloy Administration, announced the compromise deal Wednesday afternoon.

“The conversations had been ongoing and I’m pleased that we were able to tie up loose ends and formalize this proposal on behalf of our state’s students,” Ojakian said.

The compromise consolidates the affected institutions that collectively have almost 100,000 students and almost 6,600 full-time employees under one Board of Regents. But the regents for each will designate a “lead individual.”

Willis said a top official for each institution will have a seat and vote at the Board of Regents to protect the interests of the schools, but the number of top administrators and central office employees is sure to decline. For example, Connecticut State University System has four presidents, one chancellor and numerous deputies.

“They’re not the top of the food chain anymore,” Willis said. “Some of those positions will be eliminated.”

The State Department of Higher Education has said the merger will result in the elimination of about 24 of the 200 employees currently working in the institutions’ central offices. This is expected to save $4.3 million a year.

Willis said the savings are appealing, but is small compared to the combined $35 million in state funding cuts faced by CSUS, the community colleges and Charter Oak.

“They will just use it to fill a small part of that huge hole,” she said.

The deal also calls for creation of an advisory commission to “create and implement a strategic plan for higher education that will include the University of Connecticut.” It is unclear how soon the plan will be complete.

Sen. Beth Bye, the other co-chairwoman of the committee who has been supportive of the reorganization, said she is glad the shakeup will become a reality.

“It’s important we’re together to move this forward,” she said. “These great systems will be working together, versus working separate for their own goals… They’ll all grow together.”

Bye also changed a few components of Malloy’s original proposal. The original proposal would have allowed the new Board of Regents to transfer up to 15 percent of a university’s budget to another. The compromise bill will require the board to appropriate what state lawmakers provide them. She also changed the makeup of the board so they are not all gubernatorial appointed positions.

Willis said the agreement still lacks specifics on how the consolidation will be structured, but said endorsing it was “a leap of faith worth taking.”