By all accounts Mark Ojakian, the President of the Connecticut State University System, is a great man. I fondly remember the evening I was sitting by myself at Tisane´s in Hartford while this man with a perfectly ironed and starched shirt was gleefully celebrating that the governor was going to appoint him as president of our system.
Not knowing who he was, I had to flirt and tip the server well to get his identity. At the time, I was involved in a certain political campaign. I called someone “in the know” who as an attorney confirmed the information for me with a simple phrase: “Who the hell leaked that?” I left the restaurant happy because I always believed that our system, like what happened in Massachusetts, needed someone who could advocate on our behalf before the LOB because for too long we have been a neglected asset in the state.
I went home and posted an online message to a faculty group: “I know who the next chancellor will be. He is Mark Ojakian and seems like a nice guy. Let’s give him a chance.” I believed in him.
What I had overheard quickly became official. The president began a quick tour of the campuses and seemed curious, earnest and engaged. He didn’t seem to have any significant master plan to fix the world, but he reassured us that a steady presence at the legislature, along with greater advocacy efforts, would go a long way to enhance our position within the Constitution State.
Regrettably, we were at the beginning of labor contract negotiations and former “management” ghosts had put forward an ill-conceived proposal that threw the faculty into an uproar of anger and discontent. Red signs and red shirts in protest of the draconian contract proposals invaded our campuses and a confrontational posture quickly took hold.
Last April, the Board of Regents quickly approved “Students First,” a proposal set forth by Mr. Ojakian advocating for changes to the nature and structure of the system and the management of the Connecticut State College and Universities. It would centralize the functions of the community colleges and the four state universities to the “system office,” that ugly brick monster at 61 Woodland Street that now houses 150 bureaucrats.
The faculty senate at Central Connecticut State University thoughtfully discussed and deliberated the proposal and ultimately voted “no confidence” in the Board of Regents and Mr. Ojakian. I was one of the ten rogue faculty members who argued and voted against it, mostly because I thought it was untimely, and I still had full confidence in the members of the Board, people of character and competency whom I respect.
But, two weeks later, we were made aware of an underground plan titled “Design Thinking” further charting the sinister move towards the centralization of the system. For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It shattered me. I not only lost my confidence in Mr. Ojakian but, more importantly, the trust that he had earned among us was irreparably broken.
Recently I attended a meeting of the Board of Regents. They politely listened to more than an hour of forceful speeches from many of my colleagues. Many observed that the idea of “design thinking” comes from an outdated business paradigm that has been thoroughly discredited and abandoned. Even the author of the document, CSCU Provost Jane McBride Gates, could not defend it. She should be fired for spending hours at tax-payers’ expense writing such an incomprehensible, yet disturbing at the same time, piece of work.
Like a colleague stated, we have a special relationship with our students and it is not one of a “clerk-customer” nature; we nurture minds so they can be critical thinkers, responsible citizens and successful at their chosen career, all things that contribute to making Connecticut a better state and this a better world.
The most troubling issue is how this “Students First”/”Design Thinking”/”System First” mess came into being. President Ojakian lacks transparency. He doesn’t understand the principle of shared governance, where the faculty and the academics own curriculum and program design, and we share decision making when creating those structures that will facilitate learning and help the students whom we serve.
President Ojakian: on issues like this, like crafting a budget, a process you know very well, negotiation must take place. You have excluded the faculty and most administrators who could have provided knowledge, expertise, and support. That was not very smart. Yes, Connecticut needs to balance its budget, but not at the expense of the already underfunded, and therefore undervalued CSCU system.
Mr. Ojakian, the Board of Regents needs to reign you in and slow you down. There are many watchdogs in this system. You have allegedly said that you know how to take care of watchdogs. I am sure you do. I’m told there is a sign on your desk that says: “The squeaky wheel doesn’t always get the grease, sometimes it gets replaced.” Beware, that may happen to you.
You are creating an awful amount of negative noise and disrupting productivity on the campuses. It has happened to presidents before. According to a mutual friend, you have about 18 months to collect one of the largest pensions of any state employee which you are cherishing. Please, rethink this initiative and do it well. It is all for the common good. There are enough challenges before us; we do not need to be at war with ourselves.
As people know, I am a fan of Broadway. To the Board: “I Believe in you.” To Mr. Ojakian, please correct course so that you prove to us that you were not attempting to succeed in business without really trying. You have forced us to chant: “You have to stop that man!”
Serafín Méndez-Mendez is a Professor of Communication at Central Connecticut State University and involved in many community initiatives in Hartford.