A draft of the top of the organizational chart for the proposed college consolidation.

For 16 years I have been a full-time faculty member at Three Rivers Community College. For 22 years I was a practicing attorney, mostly in corporate litigation. As an attorney I was involved in numerous business start-ups, expansions, acquisitions, divestitures, spin-offs, reorganizations, mergers, consolidations, down-sizing and shutdowns. Never have I witnessed a debacle like the One College proposal for consolidating the Connecticut community colleges.

In mid-May the system office released proposed organization charts claiming to have adopted a “matrix” organization. My understanding of a matrix design in business is to push decision-making out to operating units while retaining a small, flat (meaning few levels of management) headquarters focused on policy issues. The proposed structure is really hierarchical.

Whereas a matrix pushes decision-making downward, this proposal pushes all decisions upward to a central office with no direct student contact. Whereas a matrix maintains a small headquarters, the proposed model divides, sub-divides, and sub-sub-divides matters resulting in creation of over 100 new positions. It is an open invitation to future bureaucratic territoriality, in-fighting, and gridlock. However, it does Monty Python proud.

I am confident that buried in there somewhere is an Assistant Vice President of Silly Walks and an Associate Director of Spam. It appears the proposed One College was cooked up by a select few who developed a power structure likely to further their own agendas without regard to educational needs.

This was done behind a thick fog of task forces, committees and work groups giving the false impression of collegiality. As evidence, it appears the drafters considered none of the input or recommendations from the groups created.

The situation is now a two-sided emotional slugfest. In one corner we have the President Mark Ojakian and the rest of the Ojakians seeking to centralize power. In the other corner we have the Reluctant Warriors wanting a return to “the good old days.” Each side is shouting so loud they cannot hear the other. I predict the Reluctant Warriors will lose the battle but the Ojakians will lose the war.

The Reluctant Warriors want a return to the status quo while ignoring the long history of fiscal deficits. This is no longer tenable. No one expects education to turn a profit. But ignoring fiscal responsibility in the name “education” ignores our obligations as a tax-supported entity. The Reluctant Warriors are swift to voice opposition to proposals from the system office, yet offer no alternatives. When the idea of developing an alternative plan was offered it was shouted down as “not our job” (or abandoned early-on because the system office refused to turn over detailed data to assist). The Reluctant Warriors have about as much chance of total victory as a squirrel trapped on railroad tracks pelting the oncoming train with acorns.

On the other hand, the Ojakians have consistently ignored evidence of similar efforts elsewhere in the past, many of which failed spectacularly. One definition of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors over-and-over again expecting a different result. Of course, “we’re different?” Proponents of One College say it will save money, but the data provided has been incomplete, often opaque and at times borders on accounting alchemy. It does not take a stable genius to conclude by the sheer size of the proposed organization that it will be prohibitively costly.

In the end the Ojakians will likely get the centralization they crave – or something like it – but long-term it will likely fail. Meanwhile the designers will move on. Then there will be hand wringing, finger pointing, and excuses galore. And it will prove necessary to seek out yet another model for change. Déjà vu all over again.

The system office refuses to accept that there is wide diversity among the campuses in everything from student profiles to community interests. While the Reluctant Warriors would have each campus be a free and independent city state, One College reduces campuses from being marketplaces of ideas to mere vending machines for diplomas. The choices presented are total local autonomy or none. There are administrative functions that can be effectively centralized, but not all. The concept of statewide programs that transfer seamlessly to the CSUs makes sense. Similarly, we can have some “aligned” curriculum while leaving room for local variations. And of course, the aggressive application of technology is a must.

It is unlikely a rational outcome will emerge from the current environment. There is simply too much emotion and too much shouting. The best remaining option appears to be third-party intervention. This means the legislature, governor’s office and the New England Commisison of Higher Education accreditors. Oversight has been minimal. Lawmakers rely on the clearly suspect representations of future cost savings. NECHE accreditors show a very measured skepticism.

More is needed from everyone – not to take a side – but to pressure the parties into finding common ground. Fiscal responsibility is possible while maintaining academic quality. And select consolidation does not preclude maintaining a significant degree of local campus autonomy and individual identity.

It is long past time for all stakeholders to stop yelling and posturing. Instead start listening, thinking and conversing civilly.

Richard Bennett is a Professor at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich.

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