The governing board of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges is not giving up on implementing a controversial plan to merge the schools into a single accredited institution, even though a regional accrediting body rejected its current pitch.
Mark Ojakian, the college system’s president, backpedaled Friday on previous comments that he was considering closing one or more campuses and further raising tuition after The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) disapproved his plan.
“I also want to say that I’m not recommending an accelerated review of our tuition rates or an immediate conversation of campus closures. I’ve never said that, and I’m sorry if that’s been construed differently,” Ojakian said. “What I am attempting to do is continue the open dialogue with NEASC to try and find a path forward to continue to have the Students First Initiative.”
NEASC accreditation is critical because it serves as a guarantee of the academic worth of the colleges’ program and is essential for making students eligible for federal aid.
Ojakian and Board of Regents Chair Matt Fleury expressed a willingness to work with NEASC to carry out a modified version of the consolidation plan, which is meant to save a projected $28 million in the face of declining enrollment and reductions in state funding.
But college officials project that, even if those savings are achieved, the system will be in the black only for the next two fiscal years before heading back into deficit.
The plan would shed 200 administrative positions and align curricula for more than 200 degree programs at the 12 community colleges. NEASC Chairman David P. Angel wrote to Ojakian last week that the commission didn’t believe the plan was realistic.
“Many of the matters needed to assure a smooth transition, including alignment of academic programs, are in the early stages of development, and the Commission does not yet have confidence that sufficient progress will be made on implementation in the proposed two-year time frame to ensure the College will be able to provide a clear and orderly environment necessary to support students.”
Faculty and students have raised concerns about campuses losing their autonomy, personal fabric and community connections, and that student services would suffer. They also have criticized the plan for creating more difficulty securing scholarships and financial aid.
Board member Elease E. Wright said there seems to be a disconnect from the guidance NEASC gave the board to when it made its decision denying the plan.
The college system’s president said there needs to be a more transparent process and communication with the commission moving forward.
“Not being someone from higher education, I was a little taken aback by what seems to be a disconnect between the commission and the staff,” Ojakian said. “We, I believe, played by all the rules, and then the rules were changed.”
Ojakian said he would provide the board with more details about an amended proposal at the next meeting on May 10.