I have written OpEds in the past for the purpose of advocacy or for public information, but this one functions as a wail of grief: Connecticut’s 12 Community Colleges are no more.   

What stands in their place was pieced together under great hardship and controversy over the past six years: the fifth largest community college in the country.  You might wonder what it cost us to achieve such a feat.  The official answer is: not a single penny.  The Board of Regents and Legislature approved no budget beyond $1.2M in incidental costs for the six years of labor, establishment of new levels of management and a building to put them in, and many advertised new benefits of the new college.

Our CFO claims that we saved tens of millions through strategic attrition (holding vacant positions open over the years).  Odd, no?  We appear to have materialized a whole lot of something from less than nothing.   

In other parts of the official story, we are told that hundreds of faculty worked to create a course catalog with thousands of courses and hundreds of programs.  Faculty and staff collaborated to refine and codify policies.  There were committees upon committees upon committees to work on and well-paid consultants peddling new, cookie-cutter solutions we were tasked with implementing. 

We wrapped services around students who they claim are being nurtured in the service of both equity and antiracism. We implemented Guided Pathways and both upgraded and updated all our information systems.  And we did this all while the 12 colleges, all their students and operations, and the challenges of reckoning with a pandemic all chugged along at the same time. We did this all while, through strategic attrition, our workforce was being actively reduced and while funding intended for our colleges was diverted to the project of creating another college.  

At best, this wizardry they officially claim is really a story of wage theft and worker abuse.   

Stepping outside the official story, one might investigate what a thing does (as Aristotle would advise) to determine what it is.  The only function this new megastructure serves that would not have been better accomplished with 12 existing colleges, is to centralize control and make it more possible to 1.) rely on a contingent workforce to do what full-time content experts ought to and 2.) to further obscure CSCU finances, allowing those charged with oversight to choose to believe in magic rather than see the obvious effects of disinvestment on our colleges. 

And, right on schedule, we are told our state funding falls far short of what is needed. Already, 75% of our student-facing workforce is employed at will for weeks at a time without benefits and can be let go with days’ notice. They are sometimes let go, as occurred just this past week, with no notice at all.  When the people who provide the services are contingent, services become perilously responsive to fluctuations in funding. 

Some describe this as being both ‘nimble’ and ‘efficient’ but on the day CTState opened, the person who runs the food pantry at what used to be Manchester Community College no longer had a contract and without her the pantry would close.  Their evening police dispatcher was let go. And tuition increased. What do you call that? 

At worst, the apparent alchemy is really a story of doubly neglecting community college students by working to sabotage their futures while abandoning them in the present because one can only do so many peoples’ jobs before something falls by the wayside.  It is also theft from our students—moving state funding meant for them to a project that cannot yet be justified.    

All of us are to blame: The Board of Regents members who unquestioningly approved an unrealistic and disingenuous plan in 2017.  The executives who peddled any story, no matter how inconsistent with the last or with reality, to justify their actions and fend off outside intervention. The bullying managers, willing to dismantle a public good for a pay increase and a resume line. The political actors who forced us into this corner through underfunding, who caused our consolidation-related bills to die, and who participated in farcical hearings because power demanded it.  The full-time faculty, who enjoy an unusual amount of authority over their own work but still, when faced with managers demanding that we go through appropriate motions to accredit the college, conceded to those demands to protect our paychecks and pensions.  And, though I hate to say it because so many of them have been hurting, exhausted, and abused for years now, the members of our professional staff who took on the jobs of two and three others, creating an unsustainable illusion of sufficiency and an inadequate budget baseline from which we are now cutting further still.   

We must all take responsibility, but this was a forced march.  

It is an echo of everything that is wrong with this state: Instead of investing in state services, the governor prioritizes the pensions of those lucky few who worked at a time when there was security and social mobility in a state job. So do we all, apparently.  And it is the next generation who must pay — those who do not have the stability of a secure profession, and families who make less in a year than the annual cost of many colleges.   It is this new generation of students, now majority non-white and first-generation, we’ve chosen to abandon.   

Come to think of it, it is an echo of decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the last few days, turning away from established paths toward racial equality in higher ed and failing to provide any workable solution to the burdens of student debt.  

We are burning the ladder to safety for working and so-called middle-class people– all just a paycheck, illness, or accident away from losing it all.  Public higher ed is just a detail in that larger story.  While I dream of a world where the ladder isn’t necessary for safety, where hard work is rewarded fairly, and where basic needs are met, in any world equal access to public education is a necessity of justice. Connecticut continues to fail miserably.   

If we are to turn this devastating failure around, we will need to  

  1. Honestly and collaboratively assess what it takes to serve the needs of the Connecticut community college: an open admission college in a state with that ranks among the highest in rates of K-12 educational inequality, income inequality, and racial inequality nationally.  
  2. Create a workable plan that actually addresses the challenges we face.
  3. Fund the college adequately, and give the institution control over the entirety of its block grant, but only after processes are in place for maximal transparency and public accountability from the CSCU system so that the embarrassments and abuses of the past few years can never happen again.
  4. Raise revenue to support public services and fair employment practices that allow our state’s residents a stable ground from which to reach for more. 

We have to do better. We can. 

But first, I grieve.  And I offer, to my colleagues, this wail for all we have been through, all we have lost, and all we have learned.  

Colena Sesanker PhD is a Professor of Philosophy at CT State Community College (Gateway Community College) and Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the CT Board of Regents for Higher Education.