CSCU regents adopt tuition hikes, consolidation framework

Kyle Constable /

CSCU President Mark Ojakian addresses a large crowd gathered at Eastern Connecticut State University for the April board of regents meeting Thursday. Board Chair Matt Fleury, left, looks on.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education adopted tuition increases that will eliminate more than half the $35 million budget deficit the state’s largest public college system is facing in the next fiscal year.

The board also adopted the framework of a plan to dramatically consolidate the administrative and operational structures of many of the system’s colleges.

Roughly 90,000 students attending the 17 schools in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system will see tuition increases over the next two years under a package the regents approved Thursday morning.

In each of the next two school years, tuition will increase by 4 percent at the four regional state universities, by 2.5 percent at the 12 community colleges and by 4 percent at the online Charter Oak College. The package also restructures several student fees.

CSCU President Mark Ojakian said he expects the increases to add $21 million to the system’s coffers next year, offsetting a little more than half of the system’s projected deficit for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

“It’s responsive to the need to raise revenue into the system and responsive to the students who have seen much greater increases over the years,” Ojakian said late last month after he unveiled the tuition package.

The board also adopted a sweeping framework made public earlier this week that will begin the process of consolidating the administrative and operational facets of the system’s community colleges. The proposal passed with near-unanimous consent. One regent, Bill McGurk, abstained.

The framework calls for Ojakian to develop a plan by July 1 that would consolidate community college operations into one centralized office. Ojakian projects this will save the system $28 million annually. He also projects $13 million in annual savings from additional efficiencies achieved through administrative consolidation.

“These are strategies – it’s not a final plan,” Ojakian said. “There will be an opportunity for folks to have input into what the final plan looks like. But without direction, we have nowhere to go. When we looked at these strategies, this was not to achieve short-term savings. This was to come up with a model that would allow us to be financially sustainable over the long term.”

Most of the regents praised Ojakian’s proposal as a whole, even if a few had reservations about specific elements of it.

David Jimenez, a Hartford attorney and member of the board, called it “a bold step forward.”

“I don’t think that we can, at this point, afford to hesitate,” Jimenez said. “I think we’ve been hesitating for too long. And so, I believe the strategies are right. The priorities are right. And I think that the time demands that we move now.”

Board member Lawrence DeNardis said he believes the framework is “a first step.”

Consolidating community college operations is “a first step” toward remedying the problem, said board member Lawrence DeNardis, a former congressman and state legislator. He said state leaders failed to account for the future financial consequences that came with the rapid buildup of new campuses in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Once an institution was built in one community, a group of legislators from another community said, ‘Why not us?’” DeNardis said.

“Whether we overbuilt or not – and I personally think we did – we now have to deal with what is, and do so in the most judicious way, one that will preserve all of the values we feel are important,” DeNardis said. “This step is a good step, a first step. And there will be other steps to come.”

Not everyone in the room was as enthusiastic about the proposal, however.

Stephen Adair, a non-voting member of the board and chair of the faculty advisory committee, said Ojakian’s proposal calls for “replacing a federal system with one that is centrally controlled.”

“It is more comprehensive and consequential than any other decision that has come before this board, for the community colleges and, arguably, for the state universities,” Adair said. “The consequences of this are likely greater than the merger itself.”

He said he did not see the plan until Tuesday, and had not had enough time to conclude whether he supported or opposed it.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, the board’s faculty advisory committee met and passed a resolution calling the consolidation “the biggest decision that has ever come before the Board of Regents.”

“The (committee) is shocked at the lack of specificity in President Ojakian’s ‘Students First’ proposal, and the lack of transparent deliberation that went into passing it,” the resolution said. It also said the advisory committee “expects to have representatives” on the implementation teams, and that the same will be true for other stakeholders affected.

A number of speakers during the public comment period also expressed concern that the board was considering a framework that received little to no outside input, and was only released to the public days earlier.

“We have concerns … about the proposals that have gone out,” said Jody Barr, president of the administrative staff union at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, where the regents were meeting. “I’ll be very brief. Basically, we were not part of the planning phase, and we hope to be part of the implementation phase.”

Two state legislators – Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Windham – also testified, urging Ojakian to consider the implications of one particular element of his framework: looking at the closure of some satellite campuses.

Flexer, who earned her first degree at Quinebaug Valley Community College, said QVCC’s Willimantic satellite campus is “critical” to the future of the community and should not be closed.

Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Windham, urges Mark Ojakian and the Board of Regents not to close QVCC’s Willimantic satellite campus. Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, is at left.

“As you’ve heard detailed here this morning, this is a community that has a lot of needs,” Flexer said. “And if Quinebaug Valley Community College does not continue to have a presence in this community, those students, frankly, will have nowhere to seek an opportunity of higher education.”

F. Philip Prelli, a former state agriculture commissioner and board member at the Northwestern Connecticut Community College Foundation, also testified against the restructuring, which he said would only provide “short-term savings” at the cost of losing campus-based administrators. He said moving those administrators to a central office would result in delays when attempting to make necessary changes.

He also said administrators usually make small but meaningful contributions to their communities, which would be lost if the system is consolidated.

“Let us not take the ‘community’ out of community college,” Prelli said.

This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. with additional details and comments, and again at 8:13 p.m. with a statement from the Board of Regents’ faculty advisory committee.