It was another contentious day for Mark Ojakian.
After completing a whirlwind town-hall tour of all 17 campuses in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, Ojakian, the system’s president, was greeted by unwelcoming faculty in Hartford Thursday when he returned to meet with his governing board.
The Board of Regents for Higher Education held its first meeting since a vote last month adopting the framework for a plan to consolidate administrative operations of the state’s 12 community colleges.
The framework, crafted by Ojakian and dubbed “Students First,” was praised by the regents when it was presented, but has since been derided by some faculty members and students. They say their voices were left out of the process and continue to be excluded.
Ojakian must develop a plan by July 1 that would consolidate community college operations into one centralized office, which he says will save the system $28 million annually. He projects an additional $13 million in annual savings from other efficiencies achieved through administrative consolidation.
Ojakian found himself dealing with another source of contention at the meeting, however, after some faculty members obtained a strategic planning document that system administrators had begun to circulate.
The document, called “Design Thinking,” is a 15-page outline of suggested changes to the CSCU system. The outline calls for, among other things, consolidation of several administrative functions and “nudging” students to transfer or leave an educational institution if they are struggling academically or financially. It was sent to the system’s college and university presidents for feedback earlier this month.
The outline, Ojakian said, is “absolutely not attached” to the Students First proposal, despite concerns from faculty members that it might be.
“They are ideas,” said Provost Jane McBride Gates, who decided to send the document out for feedback. “It is creative thinking, simply speaking. I don’t know how else to actually describe it.”
Still, the outline brought about 20 faculty members to Thursday’s meeting.
“It’s not a coherent document,” said Elena Tapia, president of CSU-AAUP, the faculty union for the regional state universities. “It’s kind of like a long grocery list of ideas and possibilities.”
More importantly, Tapia said, the document was crafted without faculty input – just like Ojakian’s Students First framework before it – prompting her to ask, “What’s with all the secrecy?”
Faculty concerns about secrecy in developing both Students First and Design Thinking led to several impassioned speeches during the meeting’s public comment period. The mantra was the same for many: This is not “shared governance.”
“Calling a plan or strategy ‘Students First,’ or merely stating that you are relying on shared governance, does not make it so,” said Fiona Pearson, a sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University. “Why are many of us resisting here today? Because locally, nationally, we are done having our voices erased.”
Kevin Kean, an adjunct professor at Central Connecticut State University, shook as he stood behind the lectern, telling board members that the framework they adopted could lead to layoffs.
“If something bad happens to faculty, something bad happens to students,” Kean said before pausing. “Sorry, I’m getting the shakes. I apologize. I’m a little nervous.”
Smiling, board chairman Matt Fleury responded to Kean, “It doesn’t show.”
“Yeah, but you don’t see me twitching behind here,” Kean said as the board and audience members offered sympathetic laughter.
Kean said he feared “part-time” professors like himself would be in danger of losing their jobs if the Students First framework does not reach its ambitious savings targets.
The vast majority of professors who showed up to protest were from Central Connecticut State University, where the faculty senate cast a vote of no confidence against Ojakian and the system’s leadership on April 24. Faculty members at the other three regional state universities have expressed concern about Ojakian’s plan, but have not been as vocal.
“None of the other three are as critical as Central,” said Michael Shea, chair of the English department at Southern Connecticut State University.
The regents’ faculty advisory panel presented a long list of concerns about the Students First framework. Stephen Adair, the panel’s chair, said he found the proposal “troubling.”
“This decision, which is more consequential than the merger itself, was made without any public review, any input from stakeholders, any public consideration of either the consequences or the mechanics of this consolidation, or any real public deliberation by the board members themselves,” Adair said. “Either this board questioned, debated and deliberated in private, or it never did so at all. Either way, it is troubling.”
The faculty panel’s seven-page report, which Adair read out loud almost in its entirety, identified six concerns with the Students First plan:
- Savings targets without a clear path to achieve them
- Risk to the accreditation of community colleges during the transition
- The effect on college foundations, alumni relations and capital campaigns
- Potential loss of individual campus identity when merged
- An increase in political influence when making appointments to administrative positions when there are fewer to fill
- Potential loss of a federal grant Norwalk Community College receives for being a Hispanic-serving institution
The faculty group also offered alternative proposals that included turning some smaller community colleges into satellites of larger ones to cut administrative costs and encouraging state universities and community colleges to share resources when possible.