This is the fifth year of a protracted and painful effort to consolidate the 12 community colleges that are part of the Connecticut State Colleges and University (CSCU) system – an effort marred by excessive system authority (over-centralization), and the disruption of local institutional autonomy (de-localization).
After all this time, the consolidation plan, known as “Students First” has not achieved its goals of reducing costs while improving services, and cannot do so without the active participation of faculty. But faculty have not only voiced their opposition to the plan but have in large part withdrawn from the process.
Efforts to correct this require a critical review and significant revision of the plan in order to establish a proper equilibrium between the role of management and that of faculty, and a healthy balance among the various levels of the complex system that is CSCU.
As a faculty member with three decades of service at my university and as co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents of the CSCU system (established under section 185 of state statutes), I have seen first hand the flaws of Students First. What began as an effort to ensure the financial viability of the community colleges has become what many college faculty consider as a hostile takeover of their institutions by the central System Office. In reaction, some in management now see faculty not as part of the solution but as the problem. The resulting interaction is not helpful or happy for either party.
This is not to say that there aren’t serious problems to be solved; indeed, there are significant challenges. These include increasing enrollment, retention and graduation rates; narrowing the attainment gap between majority and minority students, improving the fiscal viability of the colleges, and limiting tuition and fee increases through full funding of public higher education. Students First identified these real problems, but proposed a simplistic solution: consolidation, as if this would end all woes. This has produced the current crisis in the CSCU system.
The term “system” when applied to the CSCU is apt, but must be understood in the broader context of system theory, the application of which would help solve the problems so evident in Students First. A recent development in system theory is the notion of systems of systems, which recognizes the importance of coordinating component systems in order to both achieve desired outcomes and allow for the emergence of innovation at the aggregate level without, however, compromising the integrity of the constituent systems.
The idea of systems of systems was first developed in the context of the military, where the coordination of different branches – land, sea and air, as well as special forces and now even space forces – is needed for operational success. Proponents of a “Students First” approach to this problem would argue for the consolidation into one of the various military branches. This would meet with strenuous opposition from each branch trying to maintain its identity and its structural autonomy so as to accomplish its specific mission. Instead, what has been done is to develop a system of systems approach to produce desired results, though the overall key to success is whether the action was justified in the first place.
The system of systems approach is especially important in higher education, a different type of complex multi-level organization.
Consider the four Connecticut State Universities – Eastern, Western, Central and Southern, each of which is a system with base, intermediate and central levels of authority. The basic or local units are departments that provide the programs and courses which form the teaching core of each institution. There is an intermediate level of deans to coordinate departments within each sector (such as humanities or science), as well as institutional structures that assure shared governance, including curriculum committees and university senates elected by faculty and staff.
The central leadership consists of a president assisted by vice-presidents and chief officers, whose function is to allocate resources to assist the tasks of faculty and accomplish the other mandates of the institution, including workforce development. A fourth level, the Board of Regents provides supervision and oversight for the four universities, but key to this arrangement is that each university maintains its own accreditation and autonomy. This works, even if the road can be occasionally bumpy and needs repair from time to time.
Why then should we believe that Students First will succeed when it proposes exactly the opposite: elimination of the accreditation of the 12 community colleges, as well as control of curriculum and pedagogy by administrators (deans and associate deans) rather than the faculty who are the content experts? These are precisely the de-localization and over-centralization that need to be corrected.
It’s time to review and revise the Students First plan, and establish a proper balance between the central, intermediate and base levels in the community college sector, including maintaining departments and elected chairs within each college.
Improvements to current operations could be done while maintaining the accreditations of the 12 community colleges. The proposed Connecticut State Community College (CCSC) – should it be finally accredited– would function as their central coordinating body, assisted by a new System Office already planned for New Britain (in addition to the existing one in Hartford).
Keeping the accreditations of the constituent colleges is essential to re-establishing the balance between central and local authority. It would also allow for a fallback position should the CCSC not deliver its promised results, and would protect individual colleges from closures should centralized administration prove too costly and cut-backs are required.
Students First should be retired as a slogan and a significantly revised plan developed to take into account a system of systems approach that avoids both over-centralization and de-localization. This can be accomplished, but it requires abandoning negative stereotypes both of faculty as obstacles to institutional progress and of administrators as outsiders who needlessly meddle. Promoting mutual respect and finding common ground would benefit all parties – students, faculty and staff as well as administrators, regents and legislators – all of whom are involved in meeting the challenge of public higher education in our state.
David Blitz is a member of the Community Editorial Board of the Connecticut Mirror. He is a faculty member in the Philosophy Department at Central Connecticut State University, and is co-coordinator of its Peace Studies Program. He is co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities and serves as an ex-officio member of the Board and its Finance and Infrastructure Committee.