It was the perfect road map for conflict:
- An unpopular merger of the bachelor-degree granting Connecticut State Universities with the state’s online and community colleges created a 90,000-student system and left many faculty uneasy.
- A cut in the portion of funding provided by the state legislature challenged the 16-campus system that was already facing significant shortfalls.
- A trio of serious missteps by the new system’s first president led to his dismissal and further damaged faculty confidence in the organization’s leadership.
- Then, earlier this month, Gregory Gray, the system’s new leader, unveiled an ambitious, multi-faceted reform plan called “Transform CSCU 2020.” The blueprint, prepared by an outside consulting firm, included a long list of “road maps” for implementation; and used language that to faculty was strange, bureaucratic and off-putting, referring to such things as collecting “payroll and staffing data” to “identify key opportunities” with the goal of “program optimization.”
Faculty groups at several of the colleges and universities balked at the plan and objected to the direction in which it was taking their schools. They gave the president’s road maps an “F.”
The backlash surprised Gray.
“All of this [plan] is very supportable,” he said during an hour-long interview with the Mirror this week. “I think the faculty, when they really learn more about it, and participate before it becomes a final plan, I do believe they are going to praise it.”
Gray said he plans to work more closely with faculty to share with them where he wants to make changes, and to address their concerns along the way. Here’s what the CSCU president had to say about some of his specific areas of concern.
Too frequently students cannot get the courses they need to graduate, or the credits they take at one college aren’t accepted at another. It’s a problem students have been complaining about for years, and one Connecticut higher education officials have yet to resolve.
The Board of Regents for Higher Education was reminded of that recently by Sarah Greco, a student at Southern Connecticut State University who sits on the board. Greco said her brother “was shocked and frustrated to find that the courses he took [at SCSU] did not meet Gateway [Community College’s] requirements.” His situation, she said, “is not an exception in our system.”
Gray said fixing this problem is one of the centerpieces of Transform CSCU 2020.
The National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, reports that on average students lose about 13 credits when they transfer from one college to another.
Gray doesn’t know how many credits the colleges in the system he oversees are rejecting from transfer students, but he is determined to create a system that guarantees 60 credits from a community college will transfer to the bachelor-degree universities.
“We can do much better,” Gray said. “But it won’t happen unless faculty is on board.”
The initial response from some faculty surrounding this initiative was a fear that they would no longer get to control their curriculum.
That’s not the intention, said Gray. He said he wants all 17 institutions to agree on “core area outcomes” that will be provided at the community colleges to fulfill all the general education requirements toward earning bachelor’s degrees.
“They may be different courses at different places,” he said.
Moving classes online
Gray wants to offer courses online that would otherwise be canceled because too few students enroll.
“Mandarin, German, Spanish, every campus can’t offer those. We simply don’t have the resources,” he said. “We are going to have very soon Smart Classroom technology that is a virtual learning experience. A faculty member could teach German at Eastern [Connecticut State University] and students at all the other campuses could pick it up live on a virtual classroom.”
The proposal has irked some faculty members, who worry the educational experience will be diminished.
Gray has previously said he sees online education as the system’s future and is considering requiring all students to take six to nine credits online before they graduate.
Some faculty members are unpersuaded. “Technology is a tool rather than an end in itself. As such, pedagogical principles and practices that guide effective student learning must dictate decisions related to classroom technologies and their presumed financial efficiencies,” reads a faculty response to the plan.
The initial “road map” outlining the plan for putting courses online indicated Gray’s intention to set benchmarks for the expansion by March and target a “percent of students [to be] enrolled by a certain date.”
But after faculty cried foul, saying that this move would remove their ability to decide how to teach their courses, Gray clarified that no one will be forced to teach courses online.
“Are we going to mandate the faculty to do it? Absolutely not. Will the faculty have control of the types of courses that are in the schedule? Absolutely,” said.
The impact online courses will have will be significant, Gray said. “Will it be a huge difference for students that need these courses? Yes.”
More hiring ‘not likely’
Faculty leaders have asked that more faculty be hired to ensure students can get the courses they need and to reduce class sizes.
“To assure its academic success, Transform must prioritize the hiring of more full-time tenure track faculty in order to reduce dependence on part-time instructors,” reads the faculty response.
But hiring more faculty is not likely, Gray said.
“This plan is based upon a fiscal reality. Our allocations from the state probably are not going to get much greater, and our tuition revenue is probably not going to get much greater. So how do you do that? Well, you leverage what we have as a system,” he said.
The union’s contract at the four regional universities does restrict the hiring of too many part-time teachers, requiring that full-time faculty teach at least 79 percent of courses. The contracts at the community colleges have no such requirement.
In an effort to have more full-time faculty teaching students, college leaders shed 300 part-time teaching positions this school year and hired dozens more full-time staff.
But Gray said he will not commit right now to hiring more full-time faculty or graduate assistants to help boost research in the graduate programs at the schools.
“We have several thousand fewer students today than we had three years ago, and we have more faculty today than we had three years ago,” he said. “If you look at the state budget, it is going to be very difficult to add faculty.”
Gray, however, is asking state lawmakers for $14 million to hire more academic advisors to help students graduate on time and avoid taking courses they don’t need.
Increasing enrollment and revenue
Enrollment at the schools has dipped in recent years — by 2 percent from last fall to the start of this school year — and with that decline comes shrinking tuition revenue.
Gray said the plan is to increase enrollment by targeting veterans and other older, non-tradional college students. To do this, one of the plan’s elements seeks to offer more classes at night to accommodate this population’s work schedule.
But the plan points out that it cannot happen until funding can be secured.
With increasing tuition largely off the table, Gray said that leaves finding efficiencies. He could not immediately identify which areas of the budget could be cut.
“Each of us is going to have to figure out a way to do our affairs better and less expensively. That is a process that will be underway very, very shortly,” he said.
“The advantage that we have that we haven’t taken true advantage of yet is that we are 17 [colleges and universities]. So how do we go about to blend some of our services into one? There is a lot of money in this for technology that will allow us to become better and more efficient.”
As Gray and his administrators move to find efficiencies, however, they will be unable to find savings by laying off union members until next fiscal year. The union contract includes a no-layoff provision, “including loss of employment due to programmatic changes” until July 1, 2015.
College presidents are also developing a special tuition proposal for the Board of Regents to soon consider to lure out-of-state students to the system, according to one of the road maps.
A ‘draft’ plan
In the wake of the faculty backlash, the system president said he plans to work to get faculty members on board and try to resolve their concerns.
The involvement of outside consultants used to craft the plan — the Boston Consulting Group — has also ended, a spokesman for the system said.
“These plans are not done. They are emerging as we go,” Gray said. “Much of the issues we’ve had in the last few weeks have been because of the need for better communication . . . We have a couple thousand faculty and 100 to 150 have been pretty involved already. The question is how do you take it to the next level?”