College students heading to Capitol to continue protest against budget cuts

With their signs from protests last month in tow, college students plan to pack buses and head to the state Capitol Tuesday to ask state lawmakers to stop cutting funding for higher education.

Meanwhile, the state college system’s most distinguished faculty say the Board of Regents for Higher Education — the system’s recently created governing body — ought to be scrapped.

“We’re trying to make changes,” said Eric Bergenn, a student at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain and an organizer of the protest that drew about 200 students and faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University last month.

“The momentum has only grown in the number of people concerned about what’s going on,” the senior studying economics said.

As deficits piled up on the state budget, state lawmakers over the last two fiscal years routinely turned to cuts in higher education to balance the budget. The state’s largest college system — the Board of Regents — has seen a $49.4 million reduction, or 15.3 percent cut, since the 2010-11 school year. The University of Connecticut, governed by a separate board, has had its budget cut by $43.8 million in the last two years.

The problem has grown so dire that the 12 professors at the four Connecticut State Universities — the highest designation faculty at Central, Eastern, Southern and Western Connecticut state universities can receive — have written a second letter to legislators and their colleagues.

The first letter expressed their frustration with the proposed infusion of funding for the University of Connecticut, while there are “dangerous signs … we are being downgraded.”

This letter, sent Wednesday morning, goes one step further and calls on legislators to dissolve the governing system that was created two years ago to merge the community colleges with the Connecticut State Universities and online Charter Oak State College.

“The [Board of Regents] and central administration have failed to advocate in the state legislature for the interests of our institutions and students,” they wrote. And in bold typeface for emphasis they added, “As a solution to the crisis, we are today calling for a return to self governance for the state universities.”

This student demonstration at the Capitol and faculty letter come as the legislature’s budget-writing committee is set to release its proposed budget sometime in the next two weeks.

“Their voices are going to help. … They have a right to be upset,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee and member of the Appropriations Committee, said of the students.

After the students protested the tuition increases at campuses acorss the state last month, Bye said, “We heard them loud and clear… I think the chances are good” that legislators will reverse some of the cuts.

Students and the professors are also asking legislators to make changes to the governing board for the nearly 100,000-student system.

“We want a new board,” professor James Russell, who teaches at Eastern and researches retirement policy, said during an interview.

“Our representation has been really squashed. Decisions are done by what feels like a state agency, not those who attend” the colleges, Bergenn agreed.

The current 15-member board for the universities includes two voting student members. The majority of the board is appointed by the governor. Before the state universities and community colleges were merged into one college system two years ago, students had more representation on the board that governed the four state universities, with four of the 14 trustee seats being held by students. However, just two of the 22-member community college board were students.

Bye said she is open to considering changes to state law of who serves on the Board, “but I don’t know how much momentum there is for that.”

She also added that she “totally opposes” reversing the changes made to merge the 17 higher education institution into one system two years ago.

“It is still the right structure. There have been challenges,” she said, referring to the trio of controversies the hit the infant system last fall. “But that was from poor leadership… We still need a unified system. The consolidation was a good thing, and we need to stay on course.”

Follow education reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe