Lawmakers had sharp comments and questions for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian Tuesday in a five-hour long forum on his controversial plan to consolidate the state’s 12 community colleges.
While Ojakian has emphasized that the merger known as “Students First” is necessary to ensure the future of the financially ailing colleges, on Tuesday he was mainly focused on the ways in which a merger would improve the academic
experience for students and strengthen graduation and retention rates.
Along with other efforts underway, Ojakian said the consolidation plan”will help ensure our students receive the supports they need from the time they enter our colleges through the time they graduate and enter the workforce. This is particularly important as we we face a persistent achievement gap for students of color.”
With an average completion rate of 16 percent across the colleges now, Ojakian said, “I fundamentally believe that if we don’t make changes as we discussed here today that students will be left behind.”
“Given the failed efforts that we’ve seen from the Board of Regents over and over again … it’s hard to conceive that suddenly despite all the failures of this system since it was created that this is going to now be a national model of success.”
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly
Ojakian said the plan is bold and could be considered “a national model.” Accreditors have said they know of no other attempt to merge so many colleges.
But some legislators, as well as professors and former college administrators who spoke at the forum, had their doubts about the plan.
“Given the failed efforts that we’ve seen from the Board of Regents over and over again,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, referring to the CSCU’s governing body, “… it’s hard to conceive that suddenly despite all the failures of this system since it was created that this is going to now be a national model of success.”
Ojakian defended the regents, calling them “an incredible group of volunteers who have done a great job moving the system forward despite many challenges and many budgetary issues.”
Ojakian and his staff expect that when the 12 community colleges are consolidated into one state college — in 2023, if all goes as planned — the annual savings will be $23 million. They also expect to save $11 million through an administrative consolidation that affects all 17 institutions in the CSCU system, including the state’s four regional universities and Charter Oak State College.
Ojakian has said the savings will be invested in academics and services for students, such as hiring more student advisers.
Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the accrediting body for the CSCU system, was also present at the event and talked with legislators about the accreditation process.
“The commission doesn’t try to second guess how something would be done.”
Barbara Brittingham, New England Commission of Higher Education,
Ojakian’s plan for the consolidated community college plan was not approved by the accreditors about a year ago, who said in a letter 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.”
The commission did offer CSCU the chance to pursue the plan as if it were applying as a new institution — rather than making a “substantive” change in an existing one — but Ojakian said at that time that this would have taken five years, during which time the institutions would have become financially insolvent.
Ojakian is readying a new application, though he said he wasn’t sure if it would be as a new institution or as a “substantive change.” However, he said in answer to another legislator’s question, “It’s very clear we are moving forward with the consolidation.”
Nine CSCU staff members also spoke at the forum, detailing efforts now underway to guide students toward a coherent and successful academic pathway and explaining complications associated with taking classes at two or more colleges or transferring to another community college.
Michael Buccilli, who is a “Guided Pathways Manager” for students at Gateway Community College, outlined 35 steps that a student might have to take if she wanted to attend both Gateway and Housatonic community colleges simultaneously.
“Under the current 12 college structure, FERPA prohibits the sharing of Jessica’s academic history and critical support information…” Buccilli said of a theoretical student. “I can recall on numerous occasions helping students begin this process only to discover that it was never completed due to the burdensome number of steps — thus resulting in unintended delays in degree completion.”
Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, questioned this, however, saying “A very close friend transferred from Norwalk to Housatonic and she said it was breeze. No problem at all. That’s a significant disconnect from what you described.”
She also said it must be possible for “very competent people” to figure out how to fix the 35-step issue without having to consolidate the 12 colleges.
Buccilli said he was glad to hear that Wood’s friend had a good experience, but he said that “we’ve heard of a lot of challenges.”
Ken Klucznik, who is manager of the CSCU’s transfer and articulation policy, said that while it may have gone smoothly for Wood’s friend, it’s likely that a lot of staff time was spent behind the scenes dealing with the complicated paperwork that is necessary to transfer.
“Wouldn’t that time be better spent advising that student in a meaningful way, rather than pushing papers?” Klucznik asked. If the 12-college system were only one college, students could far more easily move from one campus to another, CSCU staff said.
Wood also asked Ojakian why he was “speeding ahead with the hiring of three regional presidents” who would be needed to implement the proposed one-college plan. Finalists have been named for the regional president positions and hires are expected to be made in April.
“Why are you fast-tracking when NECHE has told you to go back to the drawing board?” Wood asked. “You are moving ahead as if you were given explicit approval for this plan.”
Ojakian responded that he is moving forward to “look and act like one institution before we go back for accreditation… In order for us to be accredited as one institution we have to slowly go down the path as operating as one institution.”
“The reality is that we will not know whether NECHE is supportive until they actually evaluate the final proposal. That seems like an awfully big gamble.”
History professor, Central Connecticut State University
Later, Brittingham was asked about whether it was acceptable for Ojakian to move forward with hiring staff as if the merger were in place, and she said, “The commission doesn’t try to second guess how something would be done.”
Brittingham noted that CSCU representatives will be meeting with NECHE in April to get an advisory opinion on how the plan is progressing.
Later during the forum, professors and former college administrators spoke out strongly against the plan. Earlier this month, more than 1,300 faculty, students and former administrators signed a petition opposing the merger.
Matthew Warshauer, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, told legislators that it was “flabbergasting” that Ojakian was promoting Students First as primarily a way to improve student experience rather than chiefly as a cost-saving measure, as seemed to have been the case in the past.
“I would like to make clear that I am not opposed to having a system office that aides the community colleges and state universities in their missions,” Warshauer said. “I am not opposed to consolidation of certain ‘back office’ functions and purchasing.’”
However, Warshauer said, the system office “has been moving at breakneck speed to create the infrastructure needed for another substantive change request in 2023. Again we are assured that NECHE is supportive. The reality is that we will not know whether NECHE is supportive until they actually evaluate the final proposal. That seems like an awfully big gamble.”
Earlier this month, the higher education committee unanimously passed a bill that would enable lawmakers to stop plans to merge the state’s 12 community colleges into a single statewide institution. As it stands now, the regents make the decision on whether to close or merge institutions. The bill would require that any proposed merger or closing of a CSCU institution be approved by a majority of both chambers of the General Assembly.
Ojakian has opposed the bill saying it politicizes such steps.
Flexer said after the forum that she remains opposed to the consolidation plan.