As vote nears on reorganization of higher ed, committee leadership split

On the eve of a key vote on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s proposal to merge Connecticut State University, the 12 community colleges and the state’s on-line college, the co-chairs of the legislative committee reviewing the measure are sharply split on it merits.

“Higher education is the land of steady habits. You know, it needs a little shakeup,” said Sen. Beth Bye, co-chair of the Higher Education Committee, who is backing Malloy’s proposal. “People in the state are hungry for us to look at higher education for savings.”

“I do not support this,” said the other co-chair, Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury. “I think our community colleges and Charter Oak are doing a fine job. CSUS is the problem. Address their issues. This proposal restructures everyone… I am very worried.”

Malloy’s proposal would combine the central offices and governing boards at the state’s community college and state university systems, the on-line Charter Oak State College and the State Department of Higher Education under one Board of Regents. Collectively, almost 100,000 students attend the affected institutions, which have 10,900 full-time employees.

The plan is expected to save $4.3 a year by shedding 24 of the 200 employees that currently work in central offices at the institutions affected, Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti told the committee last week.

But critics argued that such mergers in other states have cost more than they saved, and that the real focus should be on fixing the Connecticut State University System’s administration. The system has drawn fire in recent months over such issues as double-digit raises for top administrators and the questionable firing of a campus president.

Willis is proposing a separate bill that would only reorganize CSUS and leave the other institutions alone. That proposal would create a plan by June to eliminate many central office positions including the top job of chancellor. That alone, she says, will save at least $4.3 million a year. The proposal also delineates the division of duties between the central office and the four regional campuses.

“Some form of a system office needs to exist. But this would limit their scope,” she said.

The co-chairs said committee members have decided to vote both the governor’s and Willis’s bill out of committee Thursday.

Bye said she did make a few changes to the governor’s proposal; including requiring a strategic plan for the state’s approach to higher education be made by Aug. 1 and taking out the ability of this new Board of Regents to shift funding from one institution to another.

Despite concerns raised about UConn’s exclusion from the reorganization, Bye said they will remain exempt under the substitute language.

“I do not believe they belong in there. I worry UConn would take over the focus,” she said. “They are a separate animal.”

While the co-chairs of the committee may not agree on the approach to reorganizing, they both agree change is coming.

“We need a system that keeps them in check,” said Willis, referring to CSUS.

“We just need a unified source that is driving higher education leadership in this state… That is missing right now,” Bye said.