Expert: Higher ed merger risky, but success is possible

Connecticut's newly restructured higher education system has the potential to avoid the pitfalls that have stalled reorganization efforts in other states, a leading higher education authority said Wednesday.

"I'm hoping this system will be an especially innovative one," Terry MacTaggart told members of the state's Board of Regents for Higher Education.

The board sought advice from MacTaggart, a former university chancellor in Minnesota and Maine, as it began to define its role in overseeing the merger of the Connecticut State University System, Connecticut Community Colleges, and Charter Oak State College.

The merger, finalized in April by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state legislature, created the Board of Regents to govern 17 institutions, including the four-campus CSU System, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak College.

MacTaggart, the author of a 1996 book analyzing higher education reorganizations in five states, said four of the five--in Minnesota, Alaska, Maryland and Massachusetts--failed to achieve their immediate goals. The reasons for failure included unrealistic goals, delays in implementation and mishandled relations with lawmakers, he said.

In Minnesota, for example, the reorganization got off to a slow start because officials focused largely on administrative and managerial matters at the expense of larger issues related to improving education, he said.

He also said most reorganizations ended up costing more than anticipated.

Only North Dakota was rated a success by MacTaggart, who credited that state's efforts to engage key stakeholders, from students to college presidents, in the reorganization process.

"My sense is this board is moving strongly in that direction," MacTaggart said as the Connecticut board met for only the second time Wednesday. MacTaggart, now a senior fellow at  the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, cited the appointment of former University of Maine President Robert Kennedy as board president and the support of Malloy as crucial factors in getting the reorganization off to a good start.

He also described the Regents as "a seasoned board [with] success in business, success in the public sector, success in politics...

"There is a kind of readiness for change. I genuinely believe you guys can pull this off."

The new board replaces separate boards that had governed CSU, the community colleges and Charter Oak. It will handle matters such as approving budgets, setting tuition and hiring college presidents. It also will review programs and approve licenses for academic programs at the state's public colleges and universities, a function that had been handled by the former Board of Governors for Higher Education.

"In Connecticut, our higher education system has been weak, too decentralized and compromised by competing interests," said board member Lawrence DeNardis. "This board has a chance to correct those problems and deficiencies."

During a workshop that preceded Wednesday's regular meeting, the board discussed matters such as communicating with the public, working with the legislature and establishing good relationships with the various campuses.

"We're all trying to figure it out," said board Chairman Lewis J. Robinson Jr., who, along with Kennedy, has begun a series of meetings on the 17 campuses to field questions and listen to ideas from students, faculty, administrators and community leaders.

"It would seem to me to be a drastic error for the Board of start imposing and pushing stuff down the line. Campuses are where a lot of ideas are percolating," he said.

Kennedy said, "This board wants to make a difference and wants to see [the merger] succeed. So many people have come up to say they're enthusiastic about this. I think the attitude is very good."