Splashing in the kiddie pool of college consolidation
The CSCU Students First plan will not improve student success or save money
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of waves and splashing emanating from the Connecticut State College and Universities office in Hartford. Why? Because they are flailing in every direction to defend their poorly conceived plan to consolidate all of Connecticut’s community colleges into one monolithic institution. It has been easy for the waves to grow large and the splashing so furious, mainly because the depth of the pool in which they are playing is so shallow.
On April 26, the General Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education and Employment Advancement held a six-hour invitational forum to learn more about the so-called “Students First” consolidation plan. Senators and representatives heard from CSCU President Mark Ojakian and his band of followers, and from Barbara Brittingham, the president of NECHE (the region’s accreditation organization), as well as four people opposed to consolidation; two professors and two former college and university presidents.
What many learned was astounding. Most pointedly, as Mr. Ojakian himself stated over an hour into the forum, was that “the primary focus of this is not on saving money. Saving money is an important component of it, but it really is about student success, number one.”
Those of us who have been living with the albatross of “Students First” for the last two years practically fell off our chairs. When the new Board of Regents was created to oversee the consolidation of the state universities and community colleges into a single system (they had previously been in separate systems) the rationale from then-Gov. Dannel Malloy was crystal clear. The primary goal, as Malloy announced in a Feb. 9, 2011 press release, was to “empower Connecticut State University System and community college local campuses without closing or combining them, while at the same time, saving taxpayers and students tens of millions of dollars over time.”
He added, “that’s why I’m proposing this overhaul to help put more money toward teaching, and less toward central office and board hierarchy.”
There you have it! To avoid closing or combining colleges and to save money.
To be sure, the press release also discussed an “increase in educational attainment,” as well as better student retention and graduation rates. Still, in each visit that Mr. Ojakian has made to the many campuses in the system and in email after email to faculty and staff, the primary thrust of consolidation has always been better efficiencies to save money; that the system is financially unsustainable without consolidation.
We are glad that he has finally admitted in a public legislative forum that this rationale is not primary to the plan. Indeed, he has little choice since we and others have started looking into the reality of the BOR numbers.
So, then, what is the real reason for consolidation? Simply put, Mr. Ojakian believes that a multi-layered, expensive bureaucracy can do a better job of educating students than the colleges and universities themselves. Forget the fact that the missions of colleges and universities have become increasingly more difficult over the past few decades because of dwindling state resources, more red tape, and unrealistic expectations of what higher education is supposed to provide in a democratic society.
Faculty and staff at our institutions of higher education are more committed than ever to engaging our students and preparing them for the world – not just job attainment – though that is certainly important. When our children move on to colleges and universities they get the opportunity to see our nation and the world in a different light, to gain a greater understanding of the varied issues that challenge us as a society. It’s not always quantifiable on a spread sheet. Our product is not a product. It’s the human development of individuals.
Mr. Ojakian and his band of followers believe that consolidation and a cookie cutter, non-community educational model will achieve their quantifiable goals. It won’t. It will merely create yet another consultant-driven corporatized model that fails to intersect and connect with students. This is the problem in the American educational system as a whole. What has decimated our K-12 schools is now being foisted upon higher education. What students will be left with is lots of information (data points, graphs, “hard” evidence), and very little actual learning.
That will fit nicely with Mr. Ojakian’s vision. We once wrote that “he listens but doesn’t hear.” At the recent legislative forum one of the senators noted disappointment at the fact that neither Mr. Ojakian nor any member of the Board of Regents stayed to hear what opponents to consolidation had to say.
Our response to the comment was simple: we’re used to being ignored. It’s a constant.
On April 5, when the system recently held its yearly conference on “Student Success & Shared Governance” at Central Connecticut State University, Mr. Ojakian showed up just long enough to smile, shake hands, and give an award. When the keynote speaker, Christopher Newell, an expert in higher education from the University of California, spent an hour discussing problems challenging the future of higher education and, in particular, noting that consolidation schemes rarely work on any level, Mr. Ojakian was nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t listen.
Nor do the system office committee leaves fall far from the system office tree. Mr. Ojakian and his band of followers constantly laud the “fact” that hundreds of faculty from the community colleges have been working collaboratively on dozens of committees to make Students First a success. The reality is something far different.
The committees are so large that agendas are simply pushed through, substantive questions are ignored, and opposition to system office demands are given a deaf ear. Why then do faculty spend countless hours in meetings, driving all over the state to serve on multiple committees? Because they fear that not doing so will result in an even bigger failure than what they are witnessing, and because they hope upon hope that they can have some influence on the final product.
That hope, however, has waned. These faculty now acknowledge that the committees are not bottom up and they do not reflect shared governance. Ironically, system office administrators send committee members emails ignoring problems while at the same time trolling for examples of success that the system can advertise, as though this “shared governance mess” is something other than in name.
And so it continues.
On April 4, system office Director of Communication Leigh Appleby tried to create more waves by splashing vigorously in the shallow pool of consolidation. Referring to the opposition against Students First, he referred to faculty as “special interest groups” and stated forcefully that, “Reputable news organizations like the CT Mirror do our students, our state, and themselves a tremendous disservice when they publish verifiably inaccurate information without any sort of fact checking.” When faculty who are fighting for the integrity of public higher education are lessened to “special interest groups,” we have indeed entered the educational twilight zone.
As for verifiable information, we would love to see some from the system office. Can they prove that savings will be achieved from consolidation? No. They can only estimate. Can they prove that a multi-layered bureaucracy and consolidation will improve student success? No.
Can we prove that the Board of Regents and system office have had failure after failure since its 2011 debut? Yes. Can we prove that the system has increased its budget by 30 percent, to the tune of a $9 million increase just this year? Yes. Can we prove that morale at the community colleges is in the dumper and that the vast majority of faculty and colleges are opposed to Mark Ojakian and consolidation? Yes. Have we reached out to the Board of Regents and asked for a forum to discuss our concerns and ideas (there are some components of Students First that could be implemented without consolidation)? Yes.
The response? A snarky letter from BOR chairman Matt Fleury and regent Merle Harris telling us to offer our own plan, not discuss theirs. Again, a refusal to listen; a refusal to even talk.
So, we, The Reluctant Warriors, current faculty and many senior administrators who have long ago retired from leading these institutions of public higher education, will continue to fight this consolidation battle against Mark Okajian and his band of followers. Not because we want to, but because we have to. We will fight until our legislative leaders and Gov. Lamont stand up, until they agree to appoint a task force that can look objectively at what needs to be done for the community colleges and the state universities. Our students deserve as much. So do our faculty.
The pool of public higher education has been and continues to be a deep one, and will define the future of Connecticut for decades to come. It’s about time we stopped splashing in the kiddie pool of consolidation.
Richard L. Judd is president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University. John A. Doyle is a former member of the board of trustees for the one-time Connecticut State University System. Matthew Warshauer is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and was recipient of the 2018 Distinguished Service Award.
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