Manchester Community College campus

August was another deeply troubling month for the system office, the Board of Regents, and “Students First.”

Two separate lawsuits were filed against the system office, one by two state faculty and staff unions and one by CEO Nicole Esposito of Manchester Community College. One of these is a federal lawsuit.

There was also a recent investigation into Andrew Kripp’s conduct as Vice President for Human Resources at the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

In all three of these cases, the allegations involve arrogance, capriciousness, intimidation, coercion, and inappropriate and unprofessional conduct.

This is obviously not the kind of behavior we want associated with our higher education governing body.

It is deeply ironic that a system office that has talked so much about equity and shared leadership and shared governance is being brought into court for equity breeches and autocratic behavior.

This behavior is probably inevitable given that there is no legislative oversight for this group. Right now, the system office answers to no one.

The Board of Regents, which is theoretically supposed to provide oversight, is made up of political appointees. They are not elected. They do not face periodic election cycles where they have to answer to the public for their choices and policies.

The BOR has simply endorsed everything the system office has wished to do. They have not provided oversight —or checks and balances. They have provided a rubber stamp.

The system office has an unlimited budget, the protection of the governor, and complete freedom to do as it wishes. This arrangement does not serve the best interests of the state or its citizens.

It seems clear that Connecticut legislators have a moral and civic obligation to intervene—to provide reasonable and much needed legislative oversight for the system office and the BOR.

These lawsuits and investigations are only the latest in a long line of warning signs that something is seriously wrong. These red flags include protests, rallies, press conferences, petitions submitted to the governor, and many votes of no confidence.

As State Rep. Gregg Haddad (1:25:04 in video) said about “Students First” in March at a Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee meeting,

In the four years I was chair of this committee, I’ve heard Students First spoken of positively about only in these presentations by your administration. I think I took one single meeting with two professors who came in to talk with me positively about this proposal. I’ve been contacted literally by hundreds of professors through the system who work at community colleges and elsewhere in your system in opposition to this change.

This statement suggests that we can’t trust what the system office and the BOR are telling us about “Students First,” that there are very serious problems with this plan, and that we are going to have to look at the evidence ourselves and draw our own independent conclusions about “Students First.”

In the spirit of thinking this through for ourselves, I invite legislators to consider why we even need consolidation.

With the current community college system in Connecticut recently identified as among the best in the nation (“Connecticut’s Community College System Ranked #5 in the U.S.”), and five of the state’s 12 community colleges ranked in the top 100 nationally, what exactly is the problem we are trying to fix?

The “administrative leave” imposed on Dr. Esposito is especially troubling if we assess the situation independently. Under Dr. Esposito’s leadership, MCC was named the Best Community College in Connecticut by Dr. Esposito was appointed to her position after a national search. In her year serving as CEO of MCC, Dr. Esposito submitted a balanced budget, played a crucial role in helping the college “pivot” online because of Covid-19, and found many ways to support MCC students during this crisis. She has yet to be officially evaluated, so she has not received any formal feedback about her performance.

When her “termination without cause” was announced this spring, 90 of her colleagues at MCC signed a letter supporting her work that was officially submitted to the BOR in May.

In addition, State Representative Geoff Luxenberg (12th District Manchester) issued a statement of support for Dr. Esposito, praising her “dynamic” leadership:

 “Nicole Esposito is a dynamic leader and Manchester Community College, its students, faculty, staff and the community at large have flourished under her leadership of the College. Her tenure has even included a budget that included a surplus during the COVID-19 crisis – and MCC being named the top Community College in Connecticut. To learn, now, that her contract to lead this institution will not be renewed, and to not be given any information as to why, raises a red flag of suspicion around the Board of Regents decision making process and lack of transparency.”

I invite legislators to consider Esposito’s record. This looks like good leadership to me.

Why would someone like this be terminated? I think the answer we will find is related to the culture the system office and BOR have created, which is a function of being beyond the reach of checks and balances.

If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we may be seeing signs of this dynamic playing out at the system office in Hartford right now.

As we know, a system of checks and balances is essential for a healthy democracy. It ensures the integrity of our processes, helps balance competing interests, ensures that multiple perspectives are given voice, and reliably produces strong public policy.

Checks and balances also distribute power in such a way that no one —and no one group— is beyond the reach of legislative oversight.

I urge legislators to find a way to enact legislation that will increase transparency and accountability for the system office and the BOR and limit the BOR’s power to consolidate institutions.

Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College. His new book, Democracy, Social Justice, and the American Community College, was published in July by Palgrave Macmillan.