Mark Ojakian wants to stick around as the president of the state’s largest public college system when his contract expires in a year, saying what the 90,000-student system needs most is stability.
Ojakian is the fifth person to lead Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, the network of community colleges and regional state universities, since the schools were merged into one system five years ago.
“You can’t have a president every one or two years and expect that you’re actually going to provide the best service to students and to our state,” Ojakian said during a recent wide-ranging interview in his Hartford office. “You just can’t do that.”
“I have thoroughly enjoyed this first year,” Ojakian said. “I love what I’m doing, and I would like to stay for as long as people will have me.”
Ojakian, who was chief of staff to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy when he was tapped to lead the troubled CSCU system, is hoping he will be able to successfully navigate the fiscal, labor and educational issues that afflicted his predecessors.
“There is just so much work to do,” said Ojakian, a self-described political junkie, social justice advocate and junk TV enthusiast. Now 62, he said, “I will never retire in the short term. I have a lot of unfinished things I would like to do. ”
Ojakian has too much political savvy to repeat the misstep his immediate predecessor made by moving to close a campus in the district of the co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s higher education committee.
But just in case there were any doubt, Ojakian called a press conference last month to publicly announce he would not be closing the campus. Standing behind him was Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, the Senate leader of the committee that oversees his college system, and other powerful legislators.
It was one of dozens of stops he’s made at colleges, universities, businesses, radio stations and the state Capitol with two goals in mind: restore trust in the system that has been beset with controversies since its creation and listen to ideas on how to improve things.
He also accepts unsolicited advise: He’s regularly approached by students and staff with ideas during his morning workout at his gym in West Hartford.
“I don’t know all the answers, and I want to listen to people’s perspectives before I make a decision about how to move forward,” he said. “My whole public service career, I think, has been about working with people, being collaborative and trying to build consensus.”
That approach seems to be paying off.
Faculty have been tame since many vented their anger with top management in a protest outside one of Ojakian’s first meetings with the Board of Regents, the system’s governing body.
“I feel optimistic about him leading our system,” said Bryan Bonina, president of the union that represents faculty and staff at the state’s community colleges, the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges. “My experience with Mark Ojakian has been very positive so far. It’s a marked change from his predecessor… He has an open door.”
Ojakian said he doesn’t have any big, bold plans he’s ready to make public yet, though he said his top priorities are improving the reputation of the school system, adapting responsibly to dwindling state funding and student enrollment and welcoming students who may not be able to get an education otherwise.
“We just need to do a better job of telling our story,” he said. “We want to build more on the mission that the system has, which includes social justice. I think that sometimes gets lost.”
During his first year, Ojakian successfully landed funding to allow 46 undocumented immigrants and hundreds of inmates to enroll in the upcoming school year. He also won federal funding so 415 more high school students from low-income families can complete college courses while they are in high school. He plans to keep lobbying the legislature to open the tuition-funded financial aid pool to undocumented immigrants.
‘The new normal’
Even after factoring in across-the-board cost increases for students – 2 percent for tuition, 3 percent for mandatory fees and 4 percent to live in a dorm – the college system still faces at least a $9 million shortfall if it wants to continue providing the same programs and services in the fiscal year that begins next July.
But that shortfall is a best-case scenario.
It assumes state funding won’t be further cut and employees won’t receive any pay raises for a second consecutive year.
Facing a nearly $1 billion state budget shortfall, the legislature and governor cut state support for the current fiscal year for the CSCU system by $18 million, or 3.1 percent. Those reductions resulted in some pretty dire cuts at the schools, including to the libraries at several community colleges and to financial aid.
Next fiscal year, the state is facing an even larger deficit.
“I think we have to be prepared that this might be the new normal,” said Ojakian. But he plans to keep making the case each year for shielding the system from cuts.
“The first time I testified before the appropriations committee, I felt guilty,” he said, acknowledging the difficult choices legislators would be left with if they listened to him and didn’t cut funding for his colleges and universities.
His plan to save some money is to centralize certain services, an idea that never came to fruition under his predecessors. Ojakian said a valid case can be made to have staff at the central office be responsible for ordering supplies and equipment as well as processing financial aid applications.
“There is always going to be resistance to change,” he said.
Much of the system’s fiscal challenge also stems from the rapidly decreasing number of students enrolling as the high-school-aged, college-bound population, shrinks in Connecticut.
Ojakian is working to counter that trend by showing off the system at every opportunity and talking with high school guidance counselors to share success stories, with the hope that they will send students his way. Radio advertisements and a billboard blitz along major highways are also pitching the schools as a good investment.
“A lot of our enrollment challenges are around the perception of our system,” he said.
Earlier this week, the system sent out a press release informing the media that the state’s community colleges were ranked number 9 in the country by the personal-finance website WalletHub. The release was accompanied by a statement from the governor.
“Our Community Colleges are major assets to our state — and they’re going to continue to be assets as they provide the training and workforce skills to prepare students for the jobs of the future,” Malloy said.
Ojakian’s two-year contract ends next August.
Typically, college and university governing boards begin considering hiring a search firm months in advance of a president’s departure.
But it doesn’t seem as if the Board of Regents has any plans to find a new leader.
“I think we are making progress, and we should continue to do so,” said Matt Fleury, the chairman of the system’s governing board. “I want to be very clear. There is a real sense of excitement about the progress we’ve made. We all appreciate there is more work for us and Mark to do in the next 12 months. So it’s likely we’ll have a conversation about how we can work together for even longer.”
Union leader Bonina also is rooting for Ojakian to stick around.
“I would say it would be a welcome development,” he said. “The feeling that I am hearing from my members is he’s changed the level of trust. Overall, he’s changed the feeling on campus that someone who is making decisions is actually hearing us and respects us.”
Ojakian, who makes $335,000 a year, said he’s ready to stay on as the system’s leader now that he’s somewhat calmed the unsettled waters.
“I would love to continue on,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to leave the system until we’ve made great progress. I don’t think that’s going to be possible in two years.”