The Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education continues its push to consolidate the 12 state community colleges into one, having most recently just submitted a necessary change proposal to the regional accreditor, NEASC, for their approval. Promoters of the plan have, among other things, circulated a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article that features the experiment in Maine to carry out their own version of consolidation.

This shared article is likely meant to assure us that our neighbors are having success in doing what we are supposed to be aiming for, if only we’d stop worrying and let the change-agents do their work. They’re doing it in Maine’s laboratory, as the article calls our neighbor’s experiment, so why can’t we? The term “laboratory” is interesting and appropriate in the Chronicle article. Maine is in fact in experimental stages, and the conditions of the experiment are not the same from one state to the other. Nor are the results in for their experiment.

The fact is that someone from outside the experience of any of the local community colleges in Connecticut came in with a top-down model of consolidation (first called a “strategy” in order to minimize any critical questions or concerns raised), further tamping down any possible resistance from faculty by assuring us that “your jobs are safe, so don’t worry.”

When various “stakeholders” have raised collective concerns or questions — many from decades of experience and depth of local community service — they have been silenced by either being ignored, or warned of dire consequences if they did not simply accept the “strategy/proposal.”   Many of these people — seasoned professionals — are not objecting blindly to change, but rather are looking for the opportunity to offer their informed input and proposals for change that can contribute to improvements, to aim for cost savings, elimination of unnecessary duplication of services, and improvement of “student success” (as much as that may be in the hands of any of us).

The rejection of this kind of input suggests that there is another agenda at hand being forced in our state “laboratory,” with no room for the insight of those who have been working here for/with our students and their communities.

Since the start of this process of change — going back a number of false-starts of change — the top-down management approach has been to grasp at “examples” of “laboratories” as a way to bolster the top-down agenda; it was New York’s SUNY System, then people realized that didn’t fit. Then it was Minnesota (MnSCU) until people realized their laboratory ended up a real mess. New Hampshire was grasped at, but they too have backtracked from their earlier experiments. Ah! Vermont! One college, 12 locations! But no… their system and its constituent units are much different than Connecticut. Then we looked to Virginia… then to?  But still we have a firewall between the planners and the local stakeholders in Connecticut communities, who continue to say, “let us be part of this process.”

I have very mixed feelings about this consolidation plan, but above all am appalled around the politics of it, and how people who know relatively little about higher education in the diverse community college communities of Connecticut are basically imposing a plan, as a giant state-wide experiment of change, and in the process acting to silence any questioning and/or concerned voices.

NEASC, in the process, of course does not get into the politics of all this; but their response to the original substantive change proposal was a caution in the laboratory: “Where’s the data? Where’s the evidence?”   And that kind of caution is not addressed by silencing people who have informed questions coming from decades of commitment and experience in their communities and in their communities’ colleges.

NEASC is already under great scrutiny at the national level, as are the other regional accreditors.  Their decision on accepting this proposal as it stands, or asking for yet more details/data-based planning, puts their reputation very much on the line. If this never-before-seen scale of change results in damage to what is offered to students and the local communities, it will not only be the Board of Regents and the CSCU System that has their reputation called into question, but so too with NEASC; it will not be like a situation where a single college or university “fails,” but this time it is at the magnitude of a whole state.

We are not lab rats.  This laboratory thing is hardly a way to try-out “change” when it comes to the lives of our students and our communities.  Certainly we need always to carry out improvement of what we do. This top-down imposition of risky experiment– based on assertions and aspirational declarations of “students first” –with the deliberate exclusion of seasoned, committed stakeholders, is not the way to do it.

Brian Donohue-Lynch is a Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson. He has taught at the school for 25 years and worked regularly on system committees, workgroups, and taskforces  on a broad range of system improvement efforts. He also served as the chair of the college’s institutional accreditation self-studies (NEASC).

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