“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”   —   Mark Twain

Recent coverage of the Board of Regents’ latest scheme to reorganize higher education in Connecticut by removing leadership, many programs and services, and potentially accreditation from the local campuses can all be summed up in the famous quote cited above from a neighbor of the Regents’ Hartford offices.

Mark Ojakian, president of the system, who has recently received votes of no confidence and complaints from faculty groups throughout the system, could have done some research on leadership around the corner at the Twain library or he could have read the news from Wisconsin where a candidate for governor is calling for the removal of the state’s Board of Regents and their president for failing to advocate for higher education.

As the fifth president in five years in this flailing organization, he might have been instructed by the failures of his predecessors or by the advice of faculty, staff, and students at the institutions when he crafted a plan that failed to meet accreditation standards.  He says he sought input about his plan to cut $28 million dollars from the colleges, on top of the millions already cut through annual budget reductions and ongoing rescissions that have drained their reserves during the six-year history of the Regents.

But the Regents who voted for the deeply flawed plan never truly appreciated the needs of the nearly 60,000 students enrolled at these colleges. Nor did they value the contributions the colleges make to the state’s economy by keeping the doors to higher education and opportunity open for students in every region of the state.

The Board of Regents was created by legislation that was driven by Gov. Dannel Malloy and his chief of staff at the time, Mr. Ojakian.  They and their appointees only knew “what they were sure of.” And it’s undone them, just as Mark Twain would have predicted.

Flimsy drafts and misleading versions of the final submission to the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE) were approved by the Regents based on insufficient information, inaccurate data, and deceptive representations about its development through a participatory process.

Bill Curry, former Comptroller of the State of Connecticut, said no credible financial officer would certify the budget and savings promised by the plan. Even after its rejection by CIHE, one member of the Regents repeated her support for the plan and claimed it as “the Board’s plan.” (The President of CIHE had called it “half-baked.”) However, a recently replaced Regent called for Mr. Ojakian’s resignation, echoing the opinions of other higher education leaders including Pres. Richard Judd, Trustee John Doyle, and Professor Richard Warshauer and community leaders such as Charlene LaVoie and Ralph Nader.  Mr. Ojakian and the Regents have failed in their fiduciary responsibility to guide, govern, and advocate for the colleges.

The problems created by the Board of Regents make it impossible to create a viable plan in the current poisoned environment. Educational institutions are communities open to ideas, thoughtful debate and planning, to teaching and learning and student success. It will take a collaborative effort by faculty, staff, students, advocates, legislative and educational leaders with an understanding of the mission of community colleges to set a new direction, reject bad decisions and political pandering in order to rebuild trust, and revitalize successful institutions with true leadership.

We recommend that a new governor reconstitute the Board of Regents and remove Mr. Ojakian. The Oversight Committee, created by the original legislation to guide the 2012 consolidation of the Community Colleges with the State Universities, could be revived and reformed by a new governor.  Community advocates, supporters, Regional Advisory Council Foundation board members, and geographical representation from each region, working with faculty, staff, and college leaders, higher education and accreditation experts, could oversee the rebuilding of a resourceful, resilient, relevant and cost-effective organization that would truly put students first.

A new governor will have many challenges. Connecticut lags its neighbors in nearly every economic indicator. Connecticut ranked last in economic performance in “Rich States, Poor States,” according to Don Klepper-Smith, in the Hartford Courant, April 28, 2018. The unemployment rate is currently 4.5 percent while our neighbors are at 3.9 percent.  The U.S. Commerce Department ranked Connecticut 49th in economic growth, and the Connecticut Department of Labor reported the second month of job losses in April.

“It’s not a Northeast thing,” according to Peter Goia of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “It’s a Connecticut thing.” (Hartford Courant, May 17, 2018.)

Several of the state’s largest employers and wealthiest citizens have fled high tax rates and an unfriendly business environment.  Our largest cities are impoverished, financially troubled with troubled schools. Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation between its white and minority students.  These challenges are what a new governor will know for sure.  What he or she may not know is that community colleges offer a solution to many of these challenges.

They provide accessible, affordable higher education to over 50 percent of the state’s undergraduates, and nearly two-thirds of the minority undergraduates in public higher education. But they need investment, not obliteration.

Since 2008, state investment in higher education has declined drastically and undermined the ability of community colleges to fulfill their mission of affordable access.  They have had to increase tuition and limit services and programs that offer improved job opportunities and a better quality of life for students and their families.

Without workforce talent, Connecticut will never attract and retain business investment and jobs.  Connecticut students deserve leaders who understand and value public higher education – that’s for sure.

For the Connecticut Community College Round Table:

Robert Miller, President Emeritus Quinebaug Valley Community College

Dianne Williams, President Emerita, Quinebaug Valley Community College

Jonathan Daube, President Emeritus, Manchester Community College

Grace S. Jones, President Emerita, Three Rivers Community College

Booker DeVaughn, President Emeritus, Northwestern Connecticut Community College

Barbara Douglass, President Emerita, Northwestern Connecticut Community College

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