College consolidation: bad for students, Connecticut, you
The 'Students First' plan will irreparably damage the state's community colleges
We are at a critical moment in the history of higher education in Connecticut. What is decided in the next few months regarding the state’s community college system will resonate for decades. It will also help determine Connecticut’s economic future.
Created in 2011 by Gov. Dannel Malloy, the Board of Regents for Higher Education (BOR) and system office were tasked with finding operational savings in the face of shrinking state support.
The BOR’s decisions have resulted in a highly publicized series of failures, financial missteps, and millions in wasted resources.
Most recently, the system president, Mark Ojakian, announced “Students First” in April 2017, which calls for the consolidation of all state community colleges into one mammoth Community College of Connecticut and consolidates critical functions such as Institutional Research and Information Technology across the entire CSCU system.
The process for consolidation has been one of secrecy, rapid implementation, and virtually no oversight by the legislature or faculty. The one body that has had the opportunity to weigh in on Ojakian’s rushed plan is the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC now NECHE), the nation’s oldest accrediting organization, which determined in April 2018 that “Students First” was unrealistic and failed to take into account the complexity of consolidation. It also questioned how savings might be achieved.
We agree. We believe that Mr. Ojakian’s plan will hurt students, hurt community colleges, and hurt Connecticut.
We are speaking because we have a responsibility to defend our students, defend our institutions, and defend higher education in Connecticut. We also have a professional responsibility to publicly oppose bad ideas. We offer our thinking respectfully, in the spirit of democratic dialog, collegial exchange of ideas, and shared leadership. We feel compelled to speak because we have exhausted official options and have had no response from the system office.
Our silence is being interpreted by legislators and policy makers – and is being marketed to legislators by the system office – as support. If you are as alarmed by this plan as we are, you must make your views heard.
We urge our colleagues and legislators to take immediate action. It is not too late – yet.
Why we oppose “Students First”/Consolidation:
Consolidation will not save money. Evidence from around the nation demonstrates emphatically that this kind of consolidation plan won’t save money. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported: “Perhaps the most surprising – and possibly unwelcome – lesson is that mergers may not actually save money.”
The NEASC letter rejecting the BOR proposal indicated that the size of the administration of the proposed college was insufficient, and that the plan did not include any transition costs, which will be considerable. The consolidation has already added two new layers of bureaucracy, including three regional presidents, a community college president, an equity officer, and regional enrollment vice presidents. All of these positions require additional support staff. Consolidation is already proving to be extremely expensive, as experience in other states has shown it would be.
Consolidation is already creating what economists call “opportunity costs.” Over the next several years, all the initiative and creativity of faculty and administrative staff will be devoted to the creation and the functioning of a new bureaucratic structure. As critical administrative functions get overlooked in the transition, crisis management has become the norm.
Just as importantly, administrative energy will not be devoted to improving access and quality, developing new curriculum and programs, or building relationships with local businesses and civic leaders. This lost potential innovation, community outreach, and relationship-building must be calculated into the cost of this proposal. Connecticut cannot afford years of chaos.
Consolidation is currently in violation of NECHE accreditation standards. NECHE standard 3.15 mandates that “the institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.” The system office is violating this standard by taking over curriculum development. It has not responded to repeated resolutions, queries, correspondence, and memos from campus governing bodies and the BOR Faculty Advisory Committee.
Consolidation will dramatically increase bureaucratic “red tape.” After cost, the most common complaint from college students nationwide is the complexity of higher education bureaucracy. Students often have difficulty finding the right person in the right office who has the authority to solve problems. Since the consolidation pulls authority from the 12 community college campuses, the new institution will be much less responsive to student needs and will increase problems and frustrations. The bureaucratic “red tape” will be equally disruptive to higher education professionals attempting to work within the new cumbersome system. The problem will be even more serious if Institutional Research and Information Technology are taken off the campuses, where they are needed on a daily basis, and placed at the system office.
Consolidation robs the community colleges of their regional identities and the future of their foundations. The value of a true “community” college is its local relationships built over the course of decades. Local autonomy provides the opportunity for local solutions to local problems. Alumni and businesses that supported their local community college in the past will not feel the same interest in supporting a branch campus of a state bureaucracy. The loss of local autonomy will eliminate any sense of local pride and devastate fundraising efforts by local foundations, which have become essential sources of revenue. QVCC has virtually eliminated student debt as a result of foundation support. This will change under “Students First.”
Consolidation will lead to a decline in student enrollment and retention. In the enormous literature on student retention, the single most consistent finding is that retention increases when students develop a social, personal, or intellectual connection to someone or some activity on campus. The inability to meet directly with local academic leaders will undercut students’ abilities to get answers, guidance, and solve problems. A statewide campus will not be able to build the personal and symbolic engagement so important for student retention and success. Students will lose the opportunity to enroll at a community institution with its own unique identity, traditions, personality, and history – and thus a vitally important part of students’ college experience will be lost. Where is the value proposition in this?
The BOR’s Consolidation strategy is to move quickly, before a new governor and legislature can give due consideration to the plan. Ojakian is proceeding at an alarming pace, with no consideration of potential consequences, with no transparency, and with no oversight by the legislature or higher education professionals. His goal is to expand so quickly that the new system is “too big to fail” and so complicated that it is seems impossible to disassemble. He is injecting the new system with a distinctly political infrastructure, with political operatives filling the highest levels of the organization. This is hardly the way to inspire confidence or success in Connecticut’s system of higher education.
There are better options for Connecticut. We can address our fiscal challenges without “Students First.” We urge the governor and the state legislature to form a Higher Education Task Force, composed of legislators, retired Connecticut community college presidents, educators, and local business leaders, to study and present options to Governor Lamont. The best path forward draws on those with expertise in higher education and a commitment to students. There are alternative approaches that can solve our fiscal challenges with much less disruption and cost.
Connecticut cannot afford to get this wrong. It will determine the future for generations to come.
We posted this statement online two weeks ago as a petition, and we have since gathered over 1,000 signatures supporting it and opposing consolidation. Individuals from every public college in the state have signed it, including faculty, staff, alumni, and students. In addition, the following former or retired Connecticut community college Presidents, state university Presidents, Chancellors, and Trustees have endorsed this petition:
- Dr. Cathryn L. Addy, President Emeritus, Tunxis Community College
- Dr. Murali D. Atluru, former member, Board of Trustees, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Dr. William Cibes, Chancellor Emeritus, Connecticut State University System
- Mary Anne Cox, past chair, Middlesex Community College Foundation, and former Assistant Chancellor, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Dr. Jonathan M. Daube, President Emeritus, Manchester Community College
- Dr. Booker T. DeVaughn, President Emeritus, Three Rivers Community College
- Dr. Gena Glickman, President Emerita, Manchester Community College
- Dr. Grace S. Jones, President Emeritus, Three Rivers Community College
- Dr. Richard Judd, President Emeritus, Central Connecticut State University
- Attorney Jules Lang, former member, Board of Trustees, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Dr. Estela Lopez, former Provost of the Connecticut State College and Universities system and former Vice Chancellor of the Connecticut State University System
- William J. McGurk, former member, Board of Regents, and former Vice-Chair, Board of Trustees, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Andrew C. McKirdy, Chancellor Emeritus, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Dr. Robert E. Miller, President Emeritus, Quinebaug Valley Community College
- Dr. Wilfredo Nieves, President Emeritus, Capital Community College
- Dr. Ira H. Rubenzahl, President Emeritus, Springfield Technical Community College, Massachusetts, and former President, Capital Community College
- Florence A. Sheils, Director Emeritus, Center for Student Development, Manchester Community College, and former member, Board of Trustees, Connecticut Community Colleges
- Dr. Anna M. Wasescha, President, West Central Initiative, Minnesota, and former President, Middlesex Community College
- Dianne E. Williams, President Emerita, Quinebaug Valley Community College
- Virginia D. Zawoy, former member, Board of Trustees, Connecticut Community College
1,000 signatures is, of course, a very significant number for a public policy document like this. It is a number that suggests that consolidation has been —and will continue to be— deeply unpopular and divisive. This is a dangerous way to move forward addressing our budgetary challenges, especially at this crucial moment in our history. We need a plan that has been produced collaboratively, has been designed by educators, and can be supported enthusiastically across all campuses and by all stakeholders.
Our petition demonstrates that there is broad-based, grassroots, statewide support for establishing a Higher Education Task Force that can be charged with studying our budgetary challenges and providing recommendations and suggestions. Given what our petition has revealed about the deep unpopularity of consolidation, this is the most sensible and productive path forward.
We also believe that the state legislature must reaffirm its historic oversight responsibilities for higher education in Connecticut. At the moment, the system office and BOR has full, independent authority to take any action it wishes, including closing colleges, without legislative approval. This must not be allowed to continue. A system of checks and balances is essential for a healthy democracy because it produces better decision-making and better public policy. This is why we enthusiastically support SB 749: An Act Requiring Legislative Approval for the Merger or Closing of Institutions Within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.
We are part of a larger group of about 35 educators and concerned citizens from around the state, with representation from many of the public institutions of higher education in Connecticut, who have been meeting since mid-January to find a way to voice our concerns about consolidation and develop alternatives to “Students First.”
We will be presenting a copy of this petition, along with a full list of signatories, to Gov. Ned Lamont for his consideration.
Stephen Adair, Central Connecticut State University; Lois Aime, Norwalk Community College; Charlene Lavoie, Community Lawyer; Dr. Colena Sesanker, Gateway Community College; Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community College; Matt Warshauer, Central Connecticut State University.
Stephen Adair is Professor of Sociology at Central Connecticut State University and recipient of the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from CCSU, the university’s highest honor. Lois Aime is Director of Educational Technology at Norwalk Community College, an Adjunct Professor, and President of the Faculty Senate at NCC. Charlene LaVoie is Director of the Office of the Community Lawyer in Winsted. Colena Sesanker teaches philosophy at Gateway Community College. Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College and is the author of a recent book about community colleges, Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College. Matt Warshauer teaches history at Central Connecticut State University. In 2018, he also received the Distinguished Service Award from CCSU, the university’s highest honor.
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