Closing a campus: Who decides?

Rep. Roberta WillisClosing a college campus is messy business, as affirmed this week by the public backlash after administrators decided to close Middlesex Community College’s satellite campuses in Meriden at the end of the semester.

It wasn’t meant to be so disorderly.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, the long-time House chair of the committee that oversees higher education, said legislators have made clear that there is a process that should be followed before such grave decisions are made.

The process was set up, she said, to ensure stakeholders are involved in the discussion.

“It just doesn’t feel like anything was followed here,” Willis said of the administration’s decision to close the campus without any feedback from stakeholders or vote of the system’s governing board.

State law requires a two-thirds vote of the Board of Regents before any college merges or closes. But does that provision apply to the five satellite campuses in the community college system?

Students currently can earn an entire associate’s degree at the Meriden campus, and most services offered at the main campus in Middletown are also offered at the satellite location.

State law also requires legislators to be notified when a program has been recommended for closure, and regulations require the Office of Higher Education to receive notice if a program will be phased out.

“The intention is clear: You can’t just close programs,” said Willis, D-Salisbury. “We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Bottom line: I am not done with them.”

After protests over the Meriden closing by students, the business community and local legislators, the state Senate Wednesday unanimously voted to strip the college system of its authority to close a campus without the legislature’s approval. The bill now awaits action in the House.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey said Wednesday that before weighing in he wants to see what options the college system has to close its deficit besides closing the Meriden campus.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was out of state Wednesday when the issue came up in the Senate, said he would like more information about the dispute.

But he suggested he was not enamored by the Board of Regents’ handling of the closing — or the Senate’s response.

“There’s a probability things could have been better handled. I think that’s a probability,” Malloy said of the regents. “On the other hand, two mistakes don’t make a right.”

The system’s budget chief said Thursday the system would be hard pressed to find alternatives to closing the Meriden campus, given the sizable budget shortfall the college system faces.

And the system’s expected deficit is growing. College leaders reported last month they were facing a $48.6 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1, of which $22 million would be closed by raising tuition by 4.8 percent. That deficit has since increased to $51.6 million, the regent’s finance committee was told Thursday.

Members of the finance panel were divided on who should decide whether a campus closes.

“The management has that responsibility,” said Matt Fleury, chairman of the Finance Committee. He pointed out, however, that the regents have the final say if they want to reverse a decision when they adopt the system’s budget.

But Richard Balducci, a member of the finance committee and former speaker of the state House of Representatives, said decisions of this magnitude should reach the board.

“I think the board should have that say,” he said.

While the future of the bill barring campus closures plays out at the state Capitol, Erika Steiner, the budget chief for the college system, said leaders will try to come up with some alternatives.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to confer on a Plan B” for Middlesex Community College, which has 3,000 full- and part-time students, Steiner said. “A campus the size of Middlesex, with that big of a budget gap is going to be hard-pressed to look at attrition or other simple ways of filling that kind of gap. So we need to talk with [that community college president] to see what other type of ideas she might have.”

No schedule has been established for allowing students to register for future courses in Meriden.

Mark Pazniokas contributed to this article.

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