Connecticut State University President Mark Ojakian talks about the three regional presidents hired Thursday at a Board of Regents for Higher Education meeting. To his left is Regent Merle Harris and to his right is Matt Fleury, the chairman of the Board of Regents.
Connecticut State University President Mark Ojakian talks about the three regional presidents recently hired at a Board of Regents for Higher Education meeting. To his left is Regent Merle Harris and to his right is Matt Fleury, the chairman of the Board of Regents. Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

During the first three weeks of May, faculty and staff at the state’s community colleges and universities voted “no confidence” in overwhelming numbers against Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian, the Board of Regents for Higher Education and the “Students First” consolidation plan.

These “no confidence” vote tallies tell a chilling and disturbing story about BOR leadership.

Although the wording varied slightly on some campuses, the essential message was the same:

“Whereas ‘Students First’ endangers the ability of the 12 community colleges in Connecticut to fulfill their respective missions, while only putting the system office first; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the representative body for faculty and staff of __________ [name of institution], votes No Confidence in the ‘Students First’ plan, Mark Ojakian, president of the CSCU system, and the Board of Regents for the CSCU system.”

Here is how the votes played out:

  • May 2: Manchester Community College Academic Senate: 58 “yes”; 11 “no”; 7 abstentions.
  • May 3: Asnuntuck Community College Faculty Council: Approved. The vote was by secret ballot without a public announcement of the tally.
  • May 6: CCSU Faculty Senate: 32 “yes,” 11 “no.”
  • May 7: Three Rivers Community College Faculty Senate: 85 percent in favor, by electronic vote open from April 29 tp May 6.
  • May 8: WCSU University Senate: 18 “yes,” 0 “no,” 7 abstentions.
  • May 9: Capital Community College Senate: 11 “yes”; 1 abstention; in a separate online survey, 91 percent of college faculty and staff supported the “no confidence” resolution.
  • May 9: Gateway Community College Faculty Staff Council: 48 “yes”; 1 “no”; 2 abstain.
  • May 14: Naugatuck Valley Community College Faculty Senate: 10 “yes”; 1 “no
  •  May 15: Quinebaug Valley Community College Academic Senate: 22 “yes”; 10 “no.”
  • May 16: Tunxis Community College Professional Staff Organization: 48 “yes”; 2 “no”; 4 abstain.
  • May 16: Housatonic Community College Faculty and Staff: 81 “yes”; 18 “no”; 8 abstain.
  • May 20: Norwalk Community College Senate: 28 “yes”; 2 “no.”

What does this mean?

It is important to note, especially for those unfamiliar with higher education governance and protocol, that a no-confidence vote is not a random opinion poll of faculty and staff.

A “no confidence” vote is the official vote of the governance body at an institution that has been charged with the responsibility and authority to oversee academic programs, policies, and curriculum, as mandated by our accrediting body (NECHE). NECHE accreditation requires that each institution guarantees such oversight of the academic domain by the institution’s faculty and staff as a condition of accreditation. These governing bodies, therefore, speak with the full authority —and on behalf of— the entire faculty and staff of their home institutions.

A vote of “no confidence” is also typically an action of last resort, as it was here– when all other avenues of recourse have been exhausted and there does not appear to be any hope for moving forward productively.

Faculty and staff at Connecticut’s state universities and community colleges spent two full years attempting to work in good faith with Mr. Ojakian and the BOR — attending meetings, serving on committees, attempting to engage in dialog— before voting “no confidence.”

Dysfunction and failure

The reasons for this breakdown have been fully articulated in a variety of places, including a large number of op-eds over the last two years—including this one that appeared in CT Mirror, “A Crisis in Confidence” —and in testimony from faculty and staff at the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee (HEEA) Invitational Forums on the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Students First Consolidation Plan on March th (which can be viewed here on CT-N: 3:38:49+).

For a full overview of this ongoing conversation, see the Reluctant Warriors website, which archives correspondence, letters to Mr. Ojakian and the BOR, op-eds, our accrediting body’s letter to Mr. Ojakian rejecting the “Students First” proposal (from NEASC, now known as NECHE), consolidation committee minutes, a formal complaint filed with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, DC, and a petition with almost 1,500 signatories opposing “Students First.”

This dysfunction and failure, unfortunately, sends a very discouraging and unseemly message to businesses in the state that are considering staying here long-term —and count on us to provide them with a fully functional higher education system and a highly-motivated, highly-skilled workforce.

A structural problem

This now marks almost a full decade of dysfunction at the BOR. Mr. Ojakian is now the fifth president to have encountered this kind of trouble.

During this time, there has been one conflict, crisis, or change of leadership after another. For those unfamiliar with this issue, a group of former Connecticut community college presidents and trustees have summarized this long, dysfunctional history in a recent op-ed.

How much more evidence do we need that this BOR model is not working? Another three years? Another five years? Another 10 years?

Since 2011 when Gov. Dannel Malloy created this controversial reorganization, this scheme has produced only wasted effort and state resources, votes of no confidence, and one failed plan after another.

It is beginning to appear that this is not an issue that is the fault of any particular individual, personality, or group of people.

It appears to be a structural problem: an issue related to the conception and leadership model of the BOR — the way it is designed and theorized, what it assumes about leadership, and how it has been set up to interact with faculty and staff and the institutions it serves.

All five BOR presidents have failed the system, even though there is a shared feeling among many that a number of former presidents were good, capable people.

Why it doesn’t work

There are a number of structural and conceptual reasons why this leadership model doesn’t work:

  1. The BOR is appointed, not elected. This leaves the body open to charges of political opportunism and favoritism —and does not guarantee that the people most committed to students and higher education are put in key leadership roles. As Kevin Rennie noted in a recent op-ed, “Lamont could signal his serious intentions by clearing out the political actors in our higher education system. One of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s terrible policies was to lard the highest levels of the system with political allies with little expertise in education as rewards for their loyalty. This is no one’s recipe for improving the state’s higher education system.”
  2. A top-down, authoritarian leadership model. This is an old, outmoded leadership model that does not allow for shared governance, collaboration, or welcoming good ideas from all sectors of an organization, no matter how far removed they may be from the top levels of management. There is no real room for collaboration, dialog-based problem solving, or teamwork. Mr. Ojakian and the BOR wish to appear they are working collaboratively, but unfortunately they are not. The system-wide votes of “no confidence” attest to this quite emphatically.
  3. No accountability. At the moment, the BOR operates as its own sovereign nation. It answers to no one. This, obviously, is not ideal. A system of checks and balances is essential for any kind of organization, and one must be built into any group that oversees our higher education system. The BOR has just raised tuition again, cut another $12.5 million dollars from the community college budget, and raised its own budget by $15 million dollars over the last three years—a 50% increase. Here are the System Office expenditure totals:

2017: $30,330,990
2018: $34,312,167
2019: $39,500,000
2020: $46,000,000

This puzzling behavior is why Ralph Nader has called for “an analysis and public release of Board of Regents expenditures since 2012.” Are calls like this for fiscal accounting building confidence in the business community or the general public that our higher education system is in good hands? Unfortunately, we don’t think they are.

  1. Only a token connection to institutions of higher education. Political appointees are not educators. They do not have the academic credentials or training to do this work. They do not publish or conduct research on educational matters. And they do not have any classroom experience. They have not devoted their professional lives to teaching and learning. It makes no sense to have a higher education oversight body that does not include a large number of faculty and staff.
  2. A model imported from another state. A common practice in government and higher education is to import a model from another state that has been designed and created in response to unique, local, very specific conditions and needs. Because a model worked in one place, it is assumed that it will work everywhere. This is not always the case. Maybe a BOR-type model has worked in other states, but it is certainly not working here. We clearly have a case here in Connecticut of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Conclusion

We now have almost 10 years of data to draw on — data that we have paid dearly for, in all sorts of ways.

Whatever we decide to do, we need to address this situation immediately, with the sense of urgency it deserves. There is vitally important work to do, and we need a viable, fully functioning leadership structure to help us do it.

Unfortunately, the current BOR model is hindering —rather than helping— this process.

Respectfully submitted,

Stephen Adair, Central Connecticut State University
Lois Aime, Norwalk Community College
John Christie, Capital Community College
Francis M. Coan, Tunxis Community College
Anne E. Dawson, Eastern Connecticut State University
Lauren Doninger, Gateway Community College
Diba Khan-Bureau, Three Rivers Community College
Charlene LaVoie, Community Lawyer
Ronald Picard, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Minati Roychoudhuri, Capital Community College
Teresa M. Russo, Gateway Community College
Colena Sesanker, Gateway Community College
Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community College
Kathy Taylor, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Stephen Monroe Tomczak, Southern Connecticut State University
Lisa Van Dermark, Asnuntuck Community College

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