Public university and college faculty, staff, students and community organizations protest outside of the CSCU Board of Regents office last November.

As legislators debated the state’s budget at the end of April, State Sen. Gary Winfield cut to the heart of the matter by asserting–“equity requires revenue.” Most of the inequities on which the pandemic have shed light– and those that we still fail to see clearly because they are woven so deeply into the fabric of our society– can be traced back to the investments and disinvestments that constructed them.

Our state– the wealthiest state in the nation, but also the most economically unequal — has taken this sentiment to heart and met this truly transformative moment in history with a progressive and equitable revenue proposal coming out of the finance committee. It is one that addresses the ways that housing, healthcare, public K-12 and higher education are all intertwined and raises revenue to fund investments in social services and in communities to reverse the damage of austerity budgets and spending cuts.

Many of us associate the term ‘crisis’ with disaster, but that’s not what the word means. The term refers to a turning point or decision that determines whether you will thrive or you will wither. The last time we were at a turning point like this one we went in the wrong direction.  Since the great recession, we’ve moved toward greater inequality and, in higher education, the share of the state colleges’ and universities’ budget that was covered by the state decreased by 20%.   If you compare where we are now with the late 80s — another economic downturn– it has decreased by 50%. We are a very long way from the vision for public higher education that gave rise to our public colleges and universities and which was expressed most fully in the 1960s when a student could work a part-time minimum wage summer job to cover the cost of a year’s tuition.

Connecticut’s community colleges have not survived this depressing, backward trajectory.  The Board of Regents has simply accepted that the wealthiest state in the nation will not rise to the challenge of taking care of our future by funding real, equitable opportunity. To accommodate this seeming inevitability, they have decided to obliterate the community colleges as we know them and replace them with something cheaper, faster, and more standardized.   They say that this plan is in the service of equity.

But if equity requires revenue, where is the revenue? The board’s plan is to take it out of student’s pockets when we encourage them to attempt more courses faster. Talk about a regressive tax…

You may think I’m being flippant or uncharitable but seriously, that IS the plan:  Pursue efficiencies through back-office restructure and build momentum, eliminate developmental courses entirely, hire a slew of advisors who will encourage students through newly- and hurriedly- streamlined pathways.

Call them pathways, tracks, or streams — they’re nothing new.  When constructed in the absence of real investment, structures like these have served to marginalize and limit the opportunities for students in underfunded school districts for generations.  And the plan to fund all of this really is the tuition dollars we will reap when we encourage sufficient students to attempt at least one more 3-credit courseTHAT IS THE PLAN.  In the tradition of No Child Left Behind, they call it Students First.

They’ve done this at exactly the moment that the percentage of our students who identify as non-white crosses the 50% mark. In a state where more than half of Hartford’s students still attend schools that are considered racially segregated, we need to check ourselves carefully.  Public higher education creates a solid path to the middle class, but has not always been equally available to all of us.  So we have to ask ourselves in this moment– is this new thing that we’re building going to open up opportunities or close them?  Will it create greater equality or greater stratification?  Does it provide a path to a livable wage and a secure future, or just a cheap credential? What are the real effects?  Forget the rhetoric.

During the pandemic, consolidating the college has directed funds away from our students toward highly paid administrators.  They asked us to cut off funding to our own grad students to save just a few hundred thousand dollars while hiring vice presidents at salaries that represent many millions each year combined.

They propose eliminating developmental education in a way that every faculty group tasked with delivering that level of instruction warns will simply exclude the state’s most underserved populations.

They have minimized diversity education and, while declaring antiracist aspirations, implemented explicitly assimilationist policy.

When many of my students have been on the frontlines of the pandemic as essential workers, losing coworkers and family members, and struggling through this uniquely hard year while going to school there is not a single licensed counselor left at my college. The Board of Regents calls this phenomenon– the effects of leaving vacated staff positions unfilled– ‘savings through attrition’ and credits the Students First Consolidation with this achievement.

Well, so do I. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective what to make of that.

What I see is a board that celebrates ‘savings’ achieved through some combination of uncompensated labor from my overworked colleagues in understaffed departments and the underserved students they struggle to help at a time when students bear a larger share of the cost than ever before.

What I see is a board that appears to think that only encouragement and clear guidance stand between my students and graduation at the pace board members regard as acceptable — a rate modeled on students who can live on campus and don’t have to work or otherwise contribute to their households.

What I see is a board that is so oblivious to what this historical moment really is that it plods on blindly with this consolidation project thinking that slapping the words ‘antiracist’ and ‘equity’ onto policies that explicitly do the opposite will go unnoticed and unchallenged.

This should not be surprising given that the majority of the board is composed of the governor’s appointees. He too fails to meet the moment, declaring that he won’t sign the finance package almost immediately after it was approved by the committee.  He too uses the word ‘equity’ in many ways, including as cover for enforcing the status quo.

Our board doesn’t understand who we serve.  Their vision for the future is inconsistent with the mission of public higher education.  At this turning point for the nation, their plans threaten to decimate our public higher education system so that no infusion of support at the federal level could ever revive us.  They  leave us in a precarious position because once the accreditations of the 12 colleges are lost, closing a location (what we now call a college) is way too easy for something of such consequence.

Besides their lack of vision, they have failed in implementation of even this uninspiring plan of theirs– under no conception of a healthy higher education is it advisable to spend on a fictitious institution while starving the actual colleges, or to multiply the levels of bureaucracy to create a clunkier, more top-heavy structure.  Whether your interest is in reviving higher ed through spending or in simply making sure our resources are well-used you should be alarmed that we have invested millions of dollars of public money that was never explicitly approved by anybody in a plan that the overwhelming majority of faculty and staff claim will harm students.

This is beyond ideology. It’s a matter of competence and of decency.

There is a need to 1. Properly fund our public colleges and universities so that they can do the good work of cultivating our future and 2. Ensure adequate oversight to be sure that those funds actually get to the students.

Colena Sesanker is Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Connecticut Board of Regents.

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