It’s time to abandon the ‘Students First’ plan
The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is at an impasse. Recent actions confirm, beyond any reasonable doubt, that experienced educators across this state have no confidence that the path the Board of Regents (BOR) has chosen for the community colleges will lead to improved outcomes for students.
We propose abandoning consolidation and “Students First,” and letting each community college keep its individual accreditation, identity, autonomy, traditions, and history.
Votes of “no confidence” across the state
In press reports, Leigh Appleby, the Director of Communications for the CSCU system, attributes our petition opposing “Students First,” the no confidence votes, and other actions as merely the work of a small group of faculty and staff who are afraid of change. The votes of no confidence, presented below, tell a very different —and much more disturbing —story.
If you choose to dismiss the importance of these no confidence votes from across the system, then you will fail to see how deep, reasonable, and pervasive the philosophical and practical opposition to consolidation is.
“Students First” is a very bad idea that will be detrimental in all sorts of ways to higher education in Connecticut.
|Votes in Governance Body unless otherwise noted||Date||Yes||No||Comments|
|Asnuntuck CC||5/03||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; no tally|
|Capital CC||5/09||11||0||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; 91% support in survey|
|CCSU||5/06||38||11||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|Gateway CC||5/09||48||1||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|Housatonic CC||5/15||75%||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; via Survey monkey|
|Manchester CC||5/02||58||11||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|Middlesex CC||No Vote|
|Naugatuck CC||5/14||11||1||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|Northwestern CC||No Vote|
|Norwalk CC||5/20||28||2||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|QVCC||5/01||22||10||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|Three Rivers CC||5/07||85%||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; via electronic ballot|
|Tunxis CC||5/16||48||2||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|WCSU||5/08||18||0||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR|
|NCC Student Gov.||5/20||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; no tally|
|CSU-AAUP Council||5/09||Supported NC – SF, Ojakian, BOR; unanimous|
The TIAA Institute study on mergers in higher education outlines a 20-60-20 rule, which refers to a tendency for proposed mergers to be supported by 20 percent of faculty and staff, to be opposed by 20 percent, and for 60 percent to occupy an uncommitted center. This study emphasizes the importance for the proponents of a merger to capture the middle.
The opposite has occurred in Connecticut.
“Mergers may not actually save much money”
Certainly, a merger of 12 higher education institutions is unprecedented —and there is a good reason why. Experience from other states— especially highly publicized mergers in Georgia, for example —have shown that consolidations like this are complex, problematic, and generally save little or no money.
As Lee Gardner, in a recent article, “Georgia’s Mergers Offer Lessons, and Cautions, to Other States” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, notes:
“As states ponder what to do with struggling public universities, their attention turns to Georgia: The Peach State has merged 14 of its colleges into seven new institutions since 2011, and more consolidations are underway. With Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Oregon, and other states pondering mergers as a solution to sinking enrollments and tight budgets, college leaders across the country have been contacting their counterparts in Georgia for advice.
Perhaps the most surprising —and possibly unwelcome— lesson is that mergers may not actually save much money.”
The money saved in Georgia, Gardner finds, “barely counts as a drop in the fiscal ocean”—not an encouraging sign for Connecticut. Our independent analysis of the budget numbers for Connecticut suggest we can expect similar results.
Perhaps most importantly, the proposed Connecticut consolidation plan works against the better judgment of the majority the professionals in the state who are experts in the field of teaching and learning.
For two years we have also been told that without consolidation, it will be necessary to close one or more of the community colleges. Closing a community college would result in many residents in the state no longer having access to higher education. But this is a false choice. There are multiple paths to achieve financial stability for community colleges without consolidation.
In this open letter, we present reasons for our skepticism of the projected savings from consolidation and offer our recommendations on how to move forward.
On the proposed savings
“Students First” is based on magical thinking.
It is built on the idea that additional deep cuts into what are already unsustainable austerity budgets at our state’s community colleges will result in improved student outcomes, higher graduation rates, and reductions in the achievement gap through an enlightened and expanded central state bureaucracy.
Moreover, the major student initiative associated with the plan, the Guided Pathways initiative, is not funded in the budget projections. If “Students First” is, indeed, about putting students first, then the presumed benefits of the plan need to budgeted alongside the cuts – -otherwise these are just empty promises.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of the budgetary claims:
- While there have been many mergers in higher education, there are no published examples of savings in other states or from other mergers that are even close to the projected savings that are being estimated here (see link above for details).
- There are no documented reasons to assume that a really large community college runs more efficiently or with a lower administrative costs than moderate size colleges.
- Under the current plan, replacing the presidents alone will cost more than keeping them. From openpayroll.ct.gov, the most recent salary for the last full-time president at each of the colleges can be reviewed (Addy, Broadie, DeFilippis, Drummer, Glickman, Jukoski, Kendrick, Levinson, Lombella, Nieves, Rooke, Wasescha). The total salary for the 12 presidents was $2.33 million. The proposed plan replaces these positions with campus CEOs and regional presidents. Twelve CEOs at $150,000 (assuming that full searches do not result in negotiated increases) and three regional presidents at $220,000 is $2.46 million. This does not include the president for the consolidated college, nor any staff. This also does not include the transitional costs as several institutional presidents are still in place, and David Levinson is being added to the growing staff at the system office to manage the transition.
- The closing pages of the April update to NECHE include the latest financial projections for the proposed merger. On page 33, the table indicates that 88 positions from Academic and Executive Leadership will be eliminated. The total salary and fringe benefits for these positions is $7.536 million, which is an average of $85,625 per position. These are to be replaced with 48 new positions, with a total cost of $6.284 million, or an average of $130,917 per position- -an average increase of 53 percent. While the reduction of 40 positions does save about $1.25 million, it appears the system will be replacing low-cost employees with much more expensive ones. Overall, this seems like a lot of trouble to go through to save $1.25 million dollars.
- The initial quantification of the savings associated with “Students First” in November of 2017 did not include a single dollar in transition costs, which now, almost two years later, appear to be considerable. These costs include faculty and staff who are being temporarily “borrowed” or permanently hired by the system office. All of this has taken time, money, resources, faculty, and staff away from students on community college campuses. The loss of experienced talent from campuses to the central office has had significant, real, and largely unacknowledged costs. Since the system is not meeting the specified completion dates for tasks based on the timelines established in June 2018, these transition costs will likely continue to rise.
- Although the budgets for the community colleges are reported to be unsustainable and are forecast to draw on their reserves, the system office continues not only to hire people into several new senior administrative positions, but also is taking on additional discretionary spending. For example, in 2019, eight Connecticut colleges joined Achieving the Dream, which requires a three-year commitment at a fee of $234,000 each. This does not include the cost of having 60 or so faculty and staff attend the Achieving the Dream week-long conference in Long Beach, California in February, and 60 more or so at the conference in Phoenix in June.
The financial concerns do not exhaust the problems with “Students First.” As has been previously reported, “Students First” is going to produce rigid, unresponsive curriculum as programs will be difficult to change once they are ensconced across multiple institutions. “Students First” will also create less robust programs because program consolidation already reveals a pull toward the “lowest common denominator” as some colleges lack the resources to offer courses required in the same program on other campuses. National experience shows that a centralized bureaucracy stifles innovation and initiative.
“Students First” will also lead to lower levels of engagement from faculty and staff as they will not be in positions to enact change.
“Students First” will diminish the ability of the colleges to be responsive to the needs of the local community. And so far, as we have seen, the planning and implementation has not respected principles of shared governance.
We believe there are many sound alternatives to “Students First” that would allow each community college keep its individual accreditation, identity, autonomy, traditions, and history.
We reiterate the call from our petition:
“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.”
Alternatives have already been suggested to the Board, but they were never seriously considered. The Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents (FAC) included a list of alternatives in both the May 2017 and the December 2017 reports to the BOR (These and other documents are available on the Reluctant Warriors website). The Community College Round Table has also offered practical suggestions.
We do believe there are multiple ways the system could save money without the consolidation and without closing campuses. Some options to be considered include:
- Create regional consortia led by campus presidents to share services and administrative functions.
- Reduce the size and functions of the system office. Move some of the functions of the system office to be under the control of institution presidents.
- Use open-source software to reduce the cost of software.
- Support “free” community college legislation, which would boost enrollment.
- Expand recruitment efforts to compete more directly against private occupational schools.
- Expand the use of solar power on campuses to reduce costs and combat climate change.
A priority on student success
The CSCU has urgent work that needs to be done to improve retention, graduation, and student success. For the last five years, faculty and staff across the CSCU system have been diverted from this task. Too much time has been wasted in unproductive planning and reorganization efforts mandated by the system office. This needs to end. We cannot afford more years of contention and disruption.
Some of the student-oriented goals of “Students First” can be accomplished more effectively without consolidating. For example, despite some claims to the contrary, the colleges can easily adopt a single application process. Colleges can share student information with a simple check box of permission. We can simplify processes of transfer and revenue sharing for students who “swirl” between institutions. These goals have been discussed for years. We simply need to move ahead and get them done.
We also need to:
- find ways to reduce food and housing insecurity for our students;
- adopt more high-impact practices, such as accelerated developmental education, first-year experience programs, intensive advising, systems of alerts and interventions, peer tutoring, learning communities, and supplemental instruction;
- invest in full-time faculty and staff to provide the academic programs and services necessary to expand opportunities for students and to improve the economic and cultural life of the state of Connecticut.
While we pour time, money, and human resources into this ill-advised reorganization scheme, funding to community colleges has been cut again and tuition is being raised. It is hard to see how any of this puts students first.
Stephen Adair, Central Connecticut State University
Lois Aime, Norwalk Community College
David Blitz, Central Connecticut State University
John Christie, Capital Community College
Francis M. Coan, Tunxis Community College
Anne E. Dawson, Eastern Connecticut State University
Lauren Doninger, Gateway Community College
Diba Khan-Bureau, Three Rivers Community College
Riaz Lalani, Norwalk Community College
Kevin Lamkins, Capital Community College
Charlene LaVoie, Community Lawyer
Patricia O’Neill, Western Connecticut State University
Ronald Picard, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Minati Roychoudhuri, Capital Community College
Teresa M. Russo, Gateway Community College
Colena Sesanker, Gateway Community College
John Shafer, Middlesex Community College
Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community College
Kathy Taylor, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Stephen Monroe Tomczak, Southern Connecticut State University
Lisa Van Dermark, Asnuntuck Community College
Matt Warshauer, Central Connecticut State University
Louise Blakeney Williams, CCSU-AAUP President, Central Connecticut State University
Carmen Yiamouyiannis, Capital Community College
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