Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian’s steady progress toward consolidating the state’s 12 community colleges, while approval from accreditors is still years away, has stoked concerns among faculty and others who believe the merger is a bad idea.
But Ojakian said the steps he is taking — from hiring top executives who have state-wide or regional responsibilities to streamlining curriculum so it is more consistent across campuses — are necessary if the system is to be successful in its bid to consolidate all 12 community colleges into a single statewide college in 2023.
“We want to be in a position to look like one college, to act like one college before we submit our application to become one college,” Ojakian said.
But there are many who are opposed to Ojakian’s plan and question his decision to move forward with it, including faculty, students and former college and university leaders who have signed a petition with more than 1,300 signatures which they plan to deliver to Gov. Ned Lamont Friday. There is also support for a legislative proposal that would require the General Assembly to approve any plan to consolidate or close public college campuses.
Matthew Warshauer, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, calls Ojakian’s strategy “a massive, massive gamble” that he fears could put the community colleges at risk of losing accreditation if the proposal flops with the accrediting agency, as well as incurring the extra expense of high-paid administrators, and hurting students.
“We’re talking about 85,000 students,” Warshauer said of the students who attend the CSCU’s four regional universities, 12 community colleges or on-line college. “If we screw this up … Getting the system of public education right is as critical to the future of Connecticut as any other budgetary concerns.”
Ojakian’s “Students First” program, as it is called, was shaped as a way to save money and improve student experience by sinking savings into faculty and staff who work directly with students. The plan would retain all 12 college campuses, but would centralize management.
With the state’s investment in the system on the decline and student enrollment lagging, Ojakian and the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees CSCU, have said repeatedly that such structural change is needed if the system is to remain solvent.
Ojakian’s strategy to move forward with consolidation is born of his experience last year when the accrediting body — then called the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education — turned down CSCU’s application for a statewide Community College of Connecticut, saying that the commission was not persuaded the plan was “realistic.”
“Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students it too high,” the commission wrote.
“Because this was such a bold initiative, I think probably the first of its kind in the country, they were a little bit reticent to even gives us a provisional approval until they saw more substance around the one college,” Ojakian observed in a recent interview.
Ojakian, who said he has been consulting closely with the New England Commission of Higher Education, as the accreditors are now called, believes it will help chances for approval of the consolidation if he presses forward with the plan.
“My sense is that by the time we submit our next request, we will be for all intents and purposes one college,” he said. “We’ll be acting like one college. We will have all the pieces in place so that the approval of our application should not be as difficult this time. I’m not going to say easy, but not as difficult.”
To that end, Ojakian has hired a vice president of enrollment management, Alison Buckley, who started last week with an annual salary of $172,300 to oversee enrollment on all 12 campuses. He has also hired a vice president of purchasing, Janel Wright, at $154,396 a year, who will oversee purchasing for the community colleges as well the state universities.
“This consolidation is costing us money … It will cost money for years to come. It’s not an answer to our economic problems. It’s making it worse.”
Elle Van Dermark
Faculty member at Asnuntuck Community College
In addition, he is in the process of hiring three regional presidents who will each oversee four of the colleges. The regional presidents, who will have salaries ranging from $139,800 to $223,700, are expected to be hired in April.
Eventually, the plan is to replace the presidents of each community college with a chief executive officer who will be paid less than a president would. Five of the 12 community college presidents have left for various reasons in the last couple of years and have been replaced by a chief executive officer or a president from another college who has taken on responsibility for oversight. A sixth president is scheduled to leave at the end of the current academic year.
Currently, the presidents’ pay ranges from $160,200 to $215,498, while the three chief executive officers in place earn about $150,000 each.
Asked whether the system will be spending more on administration during the next few transitional years, Ojakian said that’s not the case. “We’re not like bloating up to then reduce,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a wash in the short term. A little more for regional presidents, a little less for CEOs.”
He said his chief financial officer, Ben Barnes, is working on a detailed analysis of the savings achieved through Students First, but CSCU staff said the system has saved $3.5 million through attrition across the entire system compared to its revised budget plan for Fiscal Year 2018.
CSCU has projected eventually saving $11 million through administrative consolidation that affects all 17 institutions in the system and a $23 million savings with the move into a single college in 2023.
“We have been sharing positions across campuses,” Ojakian said. “When certain positions come vacant we’ve been filling them with a new position reflected in the one college model. We’ve had a lot of people leave the system and we haven’t replaced them. As we move toward the one college model, we’re going to see a lot of savings through attrition.”
But his critics question the sense of hiring regional presidents if the system isn’t going to complete consolidation until 2023 — and that’s if the approval process goes according to plan.
“They have four years of doing what?” asked Lois Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College and president of the college’s Senate. “Four years collecting a nice salary for doing what? They are adding this other layer of administration for what reason? Where is the money coming from? We have no idea.”
Elle Van Dermark, a faculty member at Asnuntuck Community College, concurred saying, “This consolidation is costing us money … It will cost money for years to come. It’s not an answer to our economic problems. It’s making it worse.”
The Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education said in a statement that the hiring of the regional presidents is “a troubling irony.”
The Students First plan was “presented as a strategy to reduce sharply the number of community college administrators who were not ‘student facing,” the 10-member advisory committee wrote, “but now, the first concrete step being taken is to hire more senior administrators who are not ‘student facing.’”
“I think both Mark Ojakian and the [NECHE] commission are trying to take this in smaller steps and, to the extent possible, avoid surprises.”
Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican from Darien who co-sponsored the bill that would require legislative approval for the merger or closing of Connecticut state colleges and universities, said she thinks Ojakian’s barreling ahead with hiring for a single consolidated college “should not be happening. I think that’s a real stretch. It’s disrespectful of the process for students and for taxpayers.”
Wood co-sponsored the same measure last year and the bill was voted out of committee, but it was never taken up by the House or Senate. She is not in favor of the current consolidation plans.
“I think this top-down structure with purported savings … it’s a lot of talk, but I don’t see it being realistic,” Wood said. “It’s a great deal of risk to a system so valuable to our state.”
Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, the accrediting agency, wouldn’t comment directly on the steps Ojakian is taking, but did say, “I think both Mark Ojakian and the [NECHE] commission are trying to take this in smaller steps and, to the extent possible, avoid surprises.”
Last year, she said, it “did not appear the groundwork had been well-laid.”
Asked whether hiring staff is a reasonable step for Ojakian to take, Brittingham said, “That’s his way of doing it. It’s not something the commission came up with.”
As for whether the the community college system is on track to get accredited as a single college, Brittingham said that will be up to the commission and is a “good reason” for CSCU and NECHE to stay in touch, which she said they have been. In April, the committee will give an intermediate review of the plans.
“I’m not making any predictions,” she said. “We are taking steps one at a time… That’s really the bottom line.”
Other steps Ojakian has been taking toward a single consolidated college include developing a general education core curriculum that is the same across the 12 community college campuses to assure consistency and the ability to transfer between campuses.
Committees are also developing “guided pathways” of study which will enable students on all campuses to take a focused sequence of courses that prepare them for their next steps. The new pathways are expected to help improve graduation and retention rates.
Another team of faculty and staff are developing a first year experience class that would be required for most students, while a “shared governance committee” is developing a statewide senate and a curriculum committee.
Faculty are concerned about efforts to make the curriculum largely the same across campuses and also about the prospect of having governance and curriculum decisions made by a centralized committee.
Van Dermark said that merging the colleges would take the “community” out of the equation.
“We help prepare the most vulnerable students to transition either to the workforce or to a four year university,” Van Dermark said. “We have first generation students, minority students, second-language learners — that’s what we do best.”
She fears that “the community aspect” will be lost with a merger and academic programs will become “homogenized” as efforts are made to make them consistent across campuses.
Estela R. Lopez, a former interim provost at CSCU and an outgoing member of the Connecticut State Board of Education, signed the petition opposing the merger. So did several former community college presidents, a former Board of Regents member, and past chancellors of the former community college system.
“I believe there are economic challenges, but I believe those challenges can be addressed without changing the structure of the community colleges,” Lopez said. “I truly believe the structure proposed will dismantle the essence of community colleges, which are community-based and connected.”
The petition says the consolidation will not save money, and will “dramatically increase ‘red tape,’” rob community colleges of their regional identities, eliminate a sense of “local pride” and “devastate fundraising efforts by local foundations.”
“Alumni and businesses that supported their local community college in the past will not feel the same interest in supporting a branch campus of a state bureaucracy,” the petition warns.
The petition also predicts consolidation will lead to a decline in student enrollment and retention because “a statewide campus will not be able to build the personal and symbolic engagement so important for student retention and success.”