Conflict? UConn expansion needs OK from other college system

When the governor proposed a dramatic enrollment expansion at the University of Connecticut, concerns immediately arose as to whether that would siphon students away from the state’s other public college system already coping with steady enrollment declines.

But the governing board for the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities will need to sign off on many of those new or expanded programs for UConn, and has already begun. Last week, without discussion, the Board of Regents unanimously approved the first of many new degrees at UConn and its regional campuses.

“I am sure nobody wants to do anything that would lessen our effectiveness,” Lewis Robinson, the chairman of the ConnSCU Board of Regents, said when asked about the UConn proposals.

He said the board plans to do an analysis on the impact of these expansions before moving forward.

And while his staff looks into whether the remaining programs deserve approval, questions are increasingly arising as to whether the regents have a conflict of interest in approving these programs in the first place.

“This certainly means the board has to function in two ways – advocate [for ConnSCU] and regulator of the competition,” said Stephen Adair, a faculty leader at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

“There are extraordinarily high levels of anxiety of what this [expansion] means for us,” he said.

Many of these expansions are directly linked to the governor’s “Next Generation” proposal to increase enrollment at UConn by one-third over the next decade. The Digital Media and Design major that is aimed at increasing UConn enrollment by 500 students at the Storrs and Stamford campuses were the first of those to get the nod from the regents.

At least 18 other new and expanded majors that UConn hopes to open this fall are awaiting their approval .

Unintended consequence or intentional authority?

When the state legislature merged and reorganized higher education two years ago at Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s urging, the authority to approve any major at a public university was placed with the Board of Regents.

Until now, these routine approvals have gone through seamlessly.

That ended when the governor proposed the “Next Generation” plan that intends to enroll more college-bound students from Connecticut into UConn. Each year, about 13 percent of high school graduates head to UConn, and 35 percent attend one of other 12 other community colleges or universities governed by the regents. 

“We have got to sit down and figure this out,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “We cannot spend all this money if there is existing capacity already.”

A bill unanimously approved by the state Senate earlier this week would remove this authority from the regents, making UConn the approving authority for their expansion. The bill awaits a vote in the House.

Two years ago the Department of Higher Education –- the statewide agency that tracked higher education trends -– was eliminated with the reorganization bill and replaced with funding to craft a statewide strategic plan.

That plan was never completed.

Rep. Roberta Willis, the other co-chair of the Higher Education Committee, said that having the authority to sign off on UConn programs resting with the regents is inappropriate.

“There needs to be a firewall between those schools they might be competing with for students… There is clearly a conflict of interest here,” said Willis, D-Salisbury.

Students have also complained that there is a political conflict, as the majority of the regents are appointed by the governor.

Asked whether the regents should approve expanding and opening new programs at UConn, John Boayd, a student leader at Western Connecticut State University, said no.

“Personally, I would caution against this,” he said Tuesday.

While there are no signs that the regents may reject these expansions, UConn spokesman Tom Breen said the procedure makes sense.

“The more input we get on changes, the better. We are not seeing this as a competitive thing. We see it in terms of cooperation,” he said.

But Willis said she has a problem with UConn’s Stamford campus building up its location when Western Connecticut State University is struggling to fill its classrooms a few towns over.

The 18 programs awaiting approval before the regents also face opposition from within UConn’s faculty, for not being consulted when moving forward with efforts to drastically expand the system’s regional campuses.

“A century-old tradition of shared governance is at risk,” UConn Professor Gaye Tuchman wrote on the national faculty union blog

Robinson, the chair of the four Connecticut State Universities, community colleges and online state college, said it makes sense that his board has to sign off on these programs.

“Although UConn comes to us for approval of these matters and they’re not part of the our system, we are all part of higher education in Connecticut and what remains important is the best benefit for our students. That will be what we are looking at in a time we have budgetary issues,” he said.

The funding to build additional space to accommodate these students and hire new faculty awaits approval by both the state House of Representatives and Senate.