Mark Ojakian takes over as president of the state’s 17-campus public college system as the institution heads for a fiscal cliff.
Ojakian – no stranger to fiscal crises from the years he worked closely with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – spent his first month on the job getting his bearings and taking heat from the faculty unions.
The career public employee with a reputation for lowering the temperature in heated situations hopes that quality will help him resolve the underlying fiscal, labor and educational issues that plagued his predecessors.
What happens to a goal deferred?
Concerned that too many students were losing credits when they transferred from a community college to a Connecticut State University, and troubled by rising administrative costs, the legislature agreed in 2011 at Ojakian’s insistence to merge the administration of the four regional Connecticut State Universities, the 12 community colleges and the online college.
Since then, administrative costs have continued to increase and the problem of transferring credits has not been resolved.
“If this mission fails, then the whole consolidation fails, and I have yet to be shown that it’s working,” Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chairwoman of the committee that oversees higher education, told college leaders in March during a hearing on transfer credits.
Ojakian, who negotiated the merger bill on behalf of the administration and was reported to have made Willis cry for her opposition, takes over as president with big plans to finally accomplish the consolidation’s original goals.
“I will tell you what it was intended to do and what it wasn’t intended to do. It was intended to truly create a system where the focus is on the student and the student’s ability to move freely within the system and not suffer any penalties, and to create efficiencies where they could be achieved,” Ojakian said during a wide-ranging interview in his Hartford office during his third week on the job.
“I think as one of the prime architects of the consolidation, I saw problems where I sat and how it was not working as it was intended to work. I think there were a lot of missteps that occurred that had less to do with the substance of the consolidation than with the leaders that were in this office,” Ojakian said.
His negotiating skills will certainly be tested as he works to “kickstart” efforts to get students’ credits to transfer seamlessly. Faculty opposition to recent proposals has been fierce.
But Ojakian is determined.
“We need to see it through to the end,” he said. “I think too often in the past people haven’t been willing to sit down and exchange those thoughts and say, ‘We’re going to do it. Let’s figure out how we get there. No is not an option. So let’s figure out together how we get to where we need to go.'”
He declined to set a timeline for bringing such changes before the Board of Regents for approval.
Discontent among faculty at the state’s public colleges has become commonplace since the merger. Last spring, faculty representatives at nearly every school in the system cast votes of “no confidence” in the last president, Gregory Gray, and his proposed vision for the system’s future, dubbed “Transform CSCU.”
Ojakian’s plan is to mediate peace once and for all.
“I am a very, very collaborative person. I like to communicate with everybody,” he told the system’s governing board in August after it named him president. “I look forward to working with all of your college presidents, all the faculty and students to make sure the system moves forward in a very positive way.”
Seven weeks later, upset faculty and students were holding protests on campuses.
At Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, a student lay in a casket in the middle of campus. Around him were gravestones that read “RIP small class sizes,” “RIP research,” “RIP respected degree.”
A grim reaper with a Board of Regents name tag on pretends to attack faculty nearby with his scythe.
This drama stems from the changes college officials have proposed to a faculty union contract.
The changes would allow college leaders to transfer tenured staff among campuses without a guarantee of retaining tenure, would no longer allow counselors and librarians to earn tenure, and would make it easier to close programs and lay off tenured staff. They have drawn the ire of an official with the national labor union that represents professors, who says the proposals are in “the true spirit of Scott Walker.”
During an interview, Ojakian laughed off the reference to the Republican governor from Wisconsin who has infuriated unions during his time in office by, among other things, attacking collective bargaining and tenure rights.
But is Ojakian aiming to reform tenure at the state’s public four-year universities that employ almost 1,000 tenured staff?
He’s not ready to say.
“They were just proposals. They hadn’t even been vetted and put into a document that I would have then felt comfortable giving. I am not going to apologize for what happened,” he said, trying to distance himself from the controversial proposals made on his third day as president. “I think that had I been able to have a little more time to review the proposals, I think we could have presented a better initial proposal. Not that any of the proposals might have changed. I am not saying that.”
Asked about the specific changes proposed to tenure, Ojakian was evasive.
“I am not saying that’s off the table. What I am saying is we need to figure out a way for our contract to be more flexible. And what form that takes is still yet to be negotiated, but there needs to be a little more flexibility about how we use all the resources of our system, including the faculty. I am not going to talk about tenure in the press. We need to find a contract that provides more flexibility.”
This isn’t Ojakian’s first flap over tenure reform.
In 2012, when Ojakian was Malloy’s chief of staff, the Democratic governor infuriated primary and secondary school teachers when he proposed making it harder to earn tenure and easier to fire tenured teachers.
It also isn’t the first time he’s been in the center of a contentious negotiation with labor unions. In 2011 when the governor was seeking $1 billion in concessions from state employees, Ojakian was the governor’s chief negotiator with the unions.
“My approach to these labor negotiations have not changed. My message to folks is that we have to understand there [are] limited dollars available,” he said. “We have to share in some of the sacrifice that happens…State resources are not going to be increased in the near future.”
Ojakian – who has worked in state government and politics for 35 years, 16 as deputy comptroller during Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman‘s entire time as comptroller – said he supports unions.
“I am not trying to break the union. Anybody who knows me will say that’s not what I am about. I am about working people. I am not trying to disenfranchise the faculty and take away everything they have. But we’re also not trying to have the students bear a disproportionate amount of the financial condition that we are in,” he said. “I respect their work. I think we just got off on the wrong foot.”
The new normal
The college system is facing a budget shortfall of at least $39.7 million for the fiscal year that begins in July 2016 – a 3 percent hole in what the system needs to continue providing existing programs, services and salary levels.
It’s also what’s required “to hold tuition and fees at a minimum,” college officials informed the governor’s budget office in September.
Well aware of the fiscal challenges the state faces, Ojakian isn’t hopeful state funding will bail the school out anytime soon. Analysts at the state’s nonpartisan fiscal office are projecting significant deficits for the state in coming years.
“My message here is we have to figure out how we will live within our means, because we are not going to get more dollars. So we have to do a whole systemic look at our situation,” he said. “I think the value of having me here is, I see it from both sides. I was part of the administration and understand the fiscal constraints that the state is operating under and the difficult decisions that they have to make every day to keep the budget balanced. But I also understand the needs of the system and the institutions…The system needs to have a fundamental conversation, working with all the presidents, about how are we going to sustain a system with less funding.”
Ojakian must manage a system who’s enrollment has declined by 10 percent over the last 5 years while state funding has not kept pace with increased costs.
“Something has to give. We can’t continue down this path,” Richard Balducci, a member of the Board of Regents, said during Ojakian’s first budget meeting last month, at which enrollment numbers were presented.
So what’s Ojakian’s plan?
He’s asked each college president to craft proposals with their constituencies and submit them to the central office by Dec. 18.
“Following receipt, executive staff will work with me to integrate the elements into a final plan for review by the Board of Regents,” he wrote in an email to college leaders and faculty last month.
Two fiscal burdens placed on the system are the result of policy changes proposed by the Malloy administration and approved by the General Assembly.
The first relates to how financial aid from the state is distributed. When rebranding state-funded aid for low-income students as the “Governor’s Scholarship,” the law was changed so that tuition support was directed more to full-time students, who are more likely to graduate.
The result was that schools enrolling more part-time students can offer them less tuition support.
Officials at Capital Community College have told the regents on several occasions they believe the shift is partially to blame for a 14 percent decline in the number of students taking courses at their Hartford campus this year over last.
“I think we need to take a look and do things a little differently. I know the intention of the governor’s scholarship was to focus more on people that were able to get through the system and were in need. But I think we have discovered that maybe because of the process we are loosing those part-time students, especially the neediest part-time students who would enroll, who would attend and would very well end up graduating,” he said. “If you never get them in, you never give them the opportunity to succeed, and they’re not going to succeed.”
The second fiscal burden is the result of the labor agreement Ojakian negotiated in 2011.
That agreement forces the public colleges and universities to spend millions of dollars more every year to bolster the cash-starved state pension system.
At issue are the hundreds of college and university employees who are switching from the state’s 401k-type retirement plan to the state’s pension system.
For each employee participating in the Alternate Retirement Plan — the 401k-type program — the higher education system must contribute 12 percent of that worker’s salary toward the pension fund.
If that employee switches to the state’s pension plan, the regents instead must contribute more than 50 percent of the worker’s salary.
For a university employee earning $50,000 annually, for example, the university system’s contribution is $25,000 a year vs. $6,000 a year.
Ojakian said it’s on his radar, and he plans to take it up with the Democratic governor’s budget chief, Benjamin Barnes.
“I am going to have conversations with Ben Barns to figure out is there something we can do together to try and figure it out. If there’s not, and we’re going to have to be the ones that are on the financial hook for it, then we will have to figure it out,” he said. “I think that was an unintended financial consequence that wasn’t fully understood back in 2011, and now that it’s actually been implemented, I think we actually have a better handle on what those are, and hopefully we can try and deal with the unintended consequences.”
To resolve the fiscal problems the system faces, Ojakian said he has no immediate plans to close any of the campuses or its satellite facilities. He also doesn’t plan to significantly rely on new tuition dollars.
“I don’t intend to recommend tuition be raised by any great amount because students are already overburdened. I don’t want students to have to incur any more debt than they already are. I want to make the system accessible for those that would not otherwise have an opportunity. I don’t want to look at raising tuition as a way out of a difficult financial situation,” he said.
With labor being the largest cost, is he looking at layoffs?
“That would be the last option,” he said, after his first Financial Affairs Committee meeting.
A new kind of president
When it came time for the Regents to select the next president of the 17-campus system, no interviews were conducted or resumes submitted.
Ojakian had already been tapped for the $335,000 a year gig. His background in higher education includes him managing government affairs for the state Board of Higher Education decades ago.
The West Hartford native received his undergraduate degree in history from St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire and a masters degree in international relations from the American University in Washington, DC.
Ojakian is the fifth person to be at the helm of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities since it was formed four years ago. Missteps by those in charge have marred the young system since its inception.
Lawmakers and faculty are hoping Ojakian has the savvy to navigate the troubled system to greater things.
“I think stability and consistency is certianly a strength at this point,” Willis said on the day Ojakian was named president. “I think at this point someone with administrative experience is certainly a strong point in someone’s favor. The ability to listen, communicate and build trust right now are really the critical skill sets someone needs at this time.”