As a history professor there is one thing I know: the COVID-19 crisis will end. We will move beyond this moment. Any reading of history shows that all societies face challenges, and they recover and emerge stronger. It is essential that Connecticut emerges in a better place when the pandemic subsides, and an excellent system of public higher education is essential for that recovery.
The Connecticut State Universities – Central, Eastern, Southern and Western – are well positioned to play a leading role in a better future. Recognized as some of the best affordable schools in the country, they provide a first-class education and are staffed by dedicated faculty who have done a tremendous job innovating teaching methods and models during the pandemic. The CSUs can emerge even stronger institutions when the crisis is over, but only if they are supported.
Unfortunately, the Board of Regents does not understand this. Faced with short-term financial challenges at the universities, they turn to destructive austerity practices.
On Nov. 19, the board will announce who will be the acting president of a system that appears to be gearing up to slash and burn the Connecticut public higher education system as we know it. At its Oct. 15 meeting, the board outlined a deficit at the four CSUs due to a decline in residence hall and food service fees. Although these fees only make up 5 percent of the entire system’s revenues, the board claims this is a fundamental crisis that can only be solved by drastic cuts to faculty and student employment. They plan to fire part-time faculty, increase class sizes, cut so-called “unprofitable” academic programs, and eliminate jobs for student workers.
This is not a creative solution or an intelligent solution. In fact, it is unclear whether the board even understands the consequences of such austerity for our students’ educations.
Students will be lost in large classes and unable to make personal connections that research shows is crucial for their success. Students will have fewer program options to choose from and fewer sections of key courses to fit their schedules. Faculty will have less time to interact with students inside or outside the classroom. Co-curricular activities and specialized educational centers that support the most marginalized students will be eliminated because faculty will not have time to direct them. With no time for professional development or research, faculty will not be able to innovate their teaching methods or keep up to date in their fields. The work faculty do to help students get jobs or pursue post-graduate degrees–such as directing internships, making connections with local business communities, and writing letters of recommendation–will be severely curtailed.
These proposed cuts risk bringing about a spiral of decline. Students will be unwilling to pay for a “barely good enough” education after the pandemic. Austerity has not worked in the past, and it certainly will not work to position us for a brighter future.
There is a better way. Connecticut has become a top destination for people moving because of COVID-19. Companies will follow this influx especially if we can make Connecticut an education destination by expanding, improving, and investing in affordable, accessible, public higher education rather than cut it. We should emerge in the end as the “education state,” stronger than all others that are shrinking rather than growing educational opportunities.
CSU faculty call on the people of Connecticut and their elected representatives to work with us to create something better. Demand that the Board of Regents go back to the drawing board and come up with an innovative, constructive solution that creates a world-class system of public higher education open to all. We relish our jobs opening minds and opening doors to new opportunities and better lives. Together we can create a better post-COVID world for all of Connecticut.
Louise Blakeney Williams is a Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, President of the CCSU-AAUP, and Vice President of the CSU-AAUP.