Connecticut college system on a ‘burning platform’
For more than three decades I had the distinct pleasure and honor of working at Western Connecticut State University and, at that time, the CSU system (Connecticut State University-comprising the four State Universities). During those years, I was fortunate to work with dedicated faculty, hardworking administrators and, of course, the greatest students in the world.
At many organizations, there comes a time when fundamental change is required because a “crossroads” of sorts has been reached. In business parlance this is sometimes referred to as the “burning platform.”
CSCU has reached such a point in time where all stakeholders must come together and agree that “business as usual” is no longer an option. A profound change in how this system is funded, organized and, frankly, how instruction shall be provided to students is critically needed because CSCU is operating under an old paradigm while the world, population demographics and technology have changed dramatically.
The disconnect between how we think about higher education in Connecticut and what is going on in the world is huge and will require innovative thinking and action to close this gap.
In the late 70s, each of the campuses were beginning to emerge from their historical status as teacher education colleges to comprehensive universities offering a full range of programs and majors. At that time, great emphasis was placed on updating what were then neglected physical facilities including the massive renovation of existing structures and the construction of sorely needed new classroom facilities, residence halls and infrastructure.
Importantly, the age of technology meant there was a critical need for the system to spend a great deal of funding to build the necessary IT infrastructure to support teaching and learning as well as streamlining many of the administrative functions. (Prior to the late 70s it would be fair to say that these campuses were technologically in the dark ages.)
The General Assembly did a phenomenal job in providing the necessary funding along the way and eventually granted full university status to the four campuses. Subsequently, the right to offer doctoral programs in education leadership was granted by the legislature, a move that enhanced the overall quality and value of these state schools.
Those were great times for CSU, enrollments were climbing, distinguished professors were coming to the campuses, and donors were helping to build endowments in ways not seen in prior years.
Other developments, however, began to foreshadow many of the critical problems now facing the new CSCU system (which includes the four regional CSU campuses, the community colleges and Charter Oak). The most serious trend was the steady decrease in state financial support.
At that time the state funded approximately 80 cents on the dollar. Today, it is closer to 38 cents on the dollar. This meant that tuition had to be increased in order to support ever expanding academic and support services that were being offered. In addition, the ever increasing number of state and federal mandates for reporting information (monitoring crime on campus, Title IX initiatives and enrollment reports to name just a few) required more administrators on each campus to mine the data and submit the seemingly endless reports.
As each four year campus began to expand its academic offerings as “comprehensive schools,” duplication of programs across the system became common. While teacher education was historically offered at each campus, a litany of new liberal arts majors (Psychology, English Literature, Sociology, History, Biology, etc.) as well as numerous professional programs (Nursing, Social Work, Music Education, Health Education) became available on all or almost all four campuses.
The athletic programs expanded with four football teams, four baseball teams, four basketball teams, and the same with the other sports. There was little, if any, emphasis on strategic planning or programming on some system level to limit this duplication. Rather, each campus wanted the autonomy to grow in whatever way the leaders felt was important to enhance enrollment, reputation and to live up to their new comprehensive mission.
Occasionally, during these years, someone at the CSU system office or the Department of Higher Education would raise the issue of duplication, but in almost every instance approval was granted to the local campus to proceed with the program.
Campus duplication became expensive as more staff, more infrastructure, more administrators were needed on each campus to support the growing number of academic programs. More importantly, a strong culture of campus autonomy emerged within the “system” which meant that each campus wanted to shape its own destiny regardless of system efforts to coordinate and align programs with shrinking resources.
This culture created a constant tug of war between the system office and the campuses, the struggle between centralization and decentralization. Campuses did not want to recognize the need for some integration or coordination because they either could not or would not accept the fact that financial and other resources were beginning to dramatically erode.
It was a losing battle. Campus autonomy trumped any attempt to approach planning with the whole system in mind. The struggle still goes on today as evidenced by the system’s recent reorganization and integration of the community colleges, the four campuses and Charter Oak.
Each component unit still wants autonomy and the right to fund and make campus- based decisions. When the current Board of Regents introduced its Transform CSCU strategic plan last fall, it met widespread criticism for containing too much “corporate speak” (e.g. business concepts), for attempting to centralize certain programs, and for not seeking adequate input from each of the constituent campuses. The future of this plan is very much in doubt and may become the victim of the real concern, which is the right of each campus to determine its own future.
Why is the future of CSCU at a critical crossroads? There are several forces at work that are creating a potential “perfect storm” which could jeopardize the future of these campuses.
Connecticut’s culture and reputation as being the “Land of Steady Habits” makes change in the system very difficult to achieve. Unlike corporations, campuses operate in a system of shared governance which means everyone has their say in decision making. In some cases, decisions can be blocked by the “rank and file” even if leadership is convinced that the university must move in another direction. For example, faculty union contracts mandate that professors “control” the curriculum which on the surface seems entirely appropriate. After all, faculty teach and they are the experts in teaching and learning. If, however, curriculum is outdated or if students are no longer interested in studying an area of the curriculum (reflected in low or no enrollment) there is a painstakingly long process to change the curriculum or eliminate the area of study completely. Other union contracts on the campus make change very difficult as well. This resistance and fear of change exists just at the moment when an openness and willingness to change is desperately needed.
CSCU system leadership has historically done a poor job in explaining the financial and resource limitations to both faculty and staff. It is not an easy job. Faculty are not interested in understanding the university as a business. They reject this concept outright. (Transform CSCU met with powerful resistance because faculty rejected “corporate speak” language in the plan!) In fact, many faculty still believe that there is “money to be found if the administration really wants to find it.” The same can be said for administrative staff. The notion that the system is not really facing financial peril is persistent and runs deep in the culture.
The reality is that universities operate based on revenues (tuition) and expenses (primarily the cost of instructional staff and operating the physical plant). In today’s environment, the State of Connecticut (and many other States) cannot generate enough funding to maintain the CSCU system at current levels.
System leadership, right up through the governor’s office, must be able to explain the financial realities and resource limitations much more clearly and consistently to campus staff. There is no new money that will come to the campuses in the foreseeable future.
Higher education is not good at eliminating or cutting back on programs/services. However, if there is not enough money to support present operations, and if enrollment is expected to continue to drop (meaning less potential for tuition dollars), then current operations must be cut back in some manner. This is not corporate speak. This is reality. This is where shared governance can truly make a difference. If all the key players are at the table, and the reality of financial limitations are presented honestly and clearly, then decisions can be made jointly to cut back or create programs that might generate more revenue or both! If declaring financial exigency is needed to achieve this, then put this concept on the table as well.
What are some of the ways that campuses can cut back and/or generate more revenue? Eliminate programs that appear to be outdated, not of interest to students, not remotely relevant in some way to the economic realities of the workplace (I am not advocating the elimination of the liberal arts), cut back unnecessary administrative staff where possible, eliminate duplication of programs and services, and close down residence halls if they are not being fully utilized. There has to be a real commitment to “pruning” back programs/services where appropriate while enhancing those that are needed and in demand.
Campuses might consider growing revenue by creating accelerated degree programs so that students can earn degrees in three years or less (this might require a quarter system rather than a semester system). Exploring and offering on-line options for degree completion or, at the very least, hybrid programs that include both on ground and online courses are important to today’s students and should be a part of the curricular offerings. The strong resistance to on-line education in almost any form on these campuses ignores the fact that this form of delivering instruction can be effective and meaningful for students.
Expanding programs in critical areas like nursing, social work and health-related careers seems like a natural evolution as our aging society will need these professionals. Why not put resources into programs like these which are vitally needed and of interest to many students?
Education for education’s sake is a very tough concept to present to students and their parents these days given the extraordinary high costs of a college education. There has to be perceived value for a college education and one aspect of this value is the ability to launch a career. Yes, faculty will argue that getting a college degree is not about simply landing a good job (which is true) but economic realities mean that employability must be part of the equation. Whether we like it or not, students want to know how likely they are to gain employment after graduation.
One final thought. Today, the notion that a college education is absolutely essential is being challenged, motivated in part by the escalating costs of obtaining a degree and the amount of student debt being incurred in the process. This means that the college experience must become even more student centered, with strong advisement programs and opportunities for students to connect to staff and services.
Faculty and staff often bristle at the use of the term “customer” when talking about students. Whether one considers a student a “customer” or not, the reality of economics, simple supply and demand, perception of value, and revenue vs. expenses are basic concepts that cannot be ignored.
Put more simply, if student enrollment continues to decline there will not be enough income to cover expenses and it is unlikely that the state will pick up the difference any time soon.
The concern for academic excellence is important, but it is a concept that often masks resistance to change as if somehow change will automatically mean lower standards. Ultimately, students will let us know how they feel about the educational possibilities in the state by attending our campuses.
The recent trend of falling enrollments in the CSCU system may be an early signal that something is not right in Camelot.
Walter B. Bernstein is vice president for student affairs, emeritus, at Western Connecticut State University.
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