As the consolidation of Connecticut’s community colleges continues, a number of troubling developments suggest the need for immediate legislative intervention and permanent ongoing oversight.
The current structure of political appointees serving on the Board of Regents is not working. The BOR has not provided legitimate oversight, and has rubber-stamped everything the system office has proposed. Oversight cannot be achieved with political appointees and friends of the governor and his political party.
Here is the latest news from the community college consolidation:
1. The system office settled the lawsuit involving Nicole Esposito with a large cash payout: $775,000. The system office chose to settle so they could avoid being “found responsible” for wrongdoing in federal court.
This is the lawsuit related to the removal of Esposito from her position as CEO of Manchester Community College. Esposito was reinstated in August.
This lawsuit alleged gender discrimination and violation of Esposito’s First Amendment and equal protection rights.
In addition to a large cash payout, the system office was ordered by a federal judge to provide training for system office leadership on discrimination and retaliation, employee free speech rights, and whistle-blower protections.
A question I would like legislators to consider: What does it say about our system leadership when they have been ordered by a federal judge to receive mandatory training related to discrimination, retaliation, free speech, and whistle-blower protections?
And what does it say about our system leadership that Esposito recently received the Woman of the Year Award this year from the American Association for Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC) for speaking out courageously against powerful and politically well-connected individuals? Esposito was also recently appointed to the national board of the AAWCC, the leading national organization for women at community colleges.
2. This federal lawsuit has drawn unfavorable national attention to the state and to our higher education leadership.
3. There was no apology provided to Esposito — just a one-sentence announcement that she was reinstated that was included at the bottom of a very long system office e-mail personnel update.
This was a federal lawsuit that revealed serious breeches of ethical and professional conduct.
One might have expected a statement like the following: “We offer our sincerest apologies to Esposito, her family, and MCC. This is not who we are. This will not happen again.”
Unfortunately, it appears this is very much who we are.
4. It gets more disturbing: Although one of the individuals named in the lawsuit does not appear to work for the system any longer, the other individuals named in the lawsuit have either been promoted or been given raises. One individual has received almost $100,000 in raises since this lawsuit was filed.
It’s hard not to read this as the system office saying that the only thing these individuals did wrong was get caught.
5. There have been other complaints and lawsuits filed against our system leadership as well. The Journal Inquirer reports that “over the past three years, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system has settled lawsuits and other employee complaints for a total of about $2.5 million, with at least $1.068 million of that being paid directly by taxpayer dollars through individual institutions of higher learning.” Most of these complaints and lawsuits “were based on claims of systematic discrimination based on gender, age, and race.”
6. The Journal Inquirer has called the current system “Discrimination U” because it is “rife with costly lawsuits, complaints, settlements.” This is the inevitable result of a system that has no real checks and balances.
7. The Journal Inquirer has also filed a Freedom of Information request to access the personnel files of the individuals named in Esposito’s lawsuit “to see if they were involved in systemic harassment, as the settled lawsuit alleged.” This is another action involving the federal government and our system leadership.
8. This past summer, the system office quietly dropped an entire top-level administrative layer of it proposed reorganization structure. There are now no longer any regional vice presidents. No one knew what these individuals were supposed to do, and many spoke out against this wasteful use of tax revenue, which only added an unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy. Millions of dollars have been wasted on an idea that many regarded as bad from the beginning.
9. The proposed elimination of department chairs currently being discussed now is another example of a very bad idea. Everyone knows that department chairs are crucial personnel on campuses who coordinate everything from adjunct hiring and evaluation, lab set-up, and student inquiries. This change will hurt students in many ways and will leave them alone on campuses when they have questions or problems.
Overall, the system office has added administration and administrative personnel where they are not needed and removed administration and administrative personnel where they are needed.
10. Regent David Jimenez resigned from the CSCU Board of Regents this summer. Jimenez’s presence on the Board was regarded by many as unethical because the BOR currently outsources legal services to Jackson Lewis, one of the three largest anti-union, anti-labor law firms in the United States. Jimenez is a principal attorney with the firm, and while he was on the BOR, he helped set the direction and agenda of public higher education in Connecticut. The 4Cs union called for him to be fired because tax dollars in Connecticut “were being directed to a private company that lowers the standards for all workers and directly contributes to the oppression of working-class White, Black and Brown communities.”
11. Connecticut’s community college system was ranked No. 1 in the nation by WalletHub. This may seem like good news —but this is the system we are now actively dismantling. It’s ironic that Gov. Ned Lamont would celebrate this honor when he is personally responsible for taking apart the system that earned it.
What will the new system look like? It’s hard to say. But it will definitely look very different than the system we have now, a system that has received many accolades.
Given what we have learned in recent months, the prospects for this new system are not promising.
These developments lead us to question the judgment of those involved in creating this consolidation and their ability to serve the state equitably. It is time for the legislature to intervene and get control of a situation that is embarrassing the state and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Our amazing community college students deserve better.
Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College.