New higher ed chairman wants to reduce public colleges’ autonomy

If the new chairman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee gets his way, the independence that the state’s public colleges have enjoyed for years will be reined in more under lawmakers control.

“I have a simple philosophy: over the years the legislature has ceded too much autonomy to the universities,” Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said in a news release announcing his appointment this week. “As elected officials who are representative of and responsible to the people, I feel we have too little say in higher education. I want to open up a dialog and have a conversation so we can get more involved in the planning and decision-making process. Right now we just allocate money; I believe there’s an opportunity for a stronger role process-wise.”

Before 1991, the state provided line-item funding to the University of Connecticut, the Connecticut State Universities and the community colleges. Now the college systems receive lump sum payments.

A University of Connecticut report given to state legislators in 2011 said increased state involvement would be detrimental.

“If Connecticut wants to derive the benefits of having a nationally competitive public research university, it must continue to allow the University to make operational decisions while holding it accountable for those decisions… History has demonstrated that operating UConn like a State agency renders the University noncompetitive, which is how it operated not that long ago,” according to the report.

But the legislature’s chief investigative arm, the Program Review and Investigations Committee, concluded that the block grant system has not led to increased achievements by the public universities and recommends tying state funding to results.

Cassano also critiqued UConn’s recent attempt to limit the number of credits its students can transfer from the state’s community colleges toward their degree at the state’s flagship university. Facing backlash, that plan stalled.

Cassano instead wants to increase the number of credits students are transferring to UConn.

“Tuition costs are getting higher and higher at the same time UConn has considered limiting community college credit transfers to 30. That’s expensive, especially when you consider we have one of the best community college systems in the country,” said Cassano, a longtime faculty member at Manchester Community College and a UConn graduate.

“We’re not going to affect national tuition trends, but if we can increase those credit transfers to 60 or 66, that’s a substantial cost savings for a student.”

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