Who can we trust about ‘Students First?’
Dear legislators: What might arguably be the most important moment in the long, contentious history of Students First and the Board of Regent’s controversial community college consolidation plan occurred on March 11 at a Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee meeting.
State Rep. Gregory Haddad had this to say about the plan:
In the four years I was chair of this committee, I’ve heard Students First spoken of positively about only in these presentations by your administration. I think I took one single meeting with two professors who came in to talk with me positively about this proposal. I’ve been contacted literally by hundreds of professors through the system who work at community colleges and elsewhere in your system in opposition to this change. (See video at 1:25:04)
Let’s take a moment to think this through —because the implications are significant.
“I’ve heard Students First spoken of positively about only in these presentations by your administration.”
This is a startling statement for three reasons.
One: Unfortunately, it suggests that we can’t trust what the system office and the BOR are telling us about Students First. Two: It suggests that there are very serious problems with Students First. Three: It means that we are going to have to look at the evidence ourselves and draw our own independent conclusions about Students First and its viability.
This consolidation plan has barreled forward despite four years of vigorous protests, no confidence votes, op-eds, petitions, statewide committees offering suggestions and alternatives and ideas, and formal resistance from every community college in the state.
Maybe its time to finally take these voices seriously.
More than anything else, Students First is a political enterprise, with top management in the system office and the BOR closely linked to former Gov. Dannel Malloy and to current Gov. Ned Lamont. Personnel include some of ex-Governor Malloy’s closest allies, including his former Chief of Staff and his Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. The entire BOR consists of individuals appointed by Malloy.
What has been created can almost be described as an unelected, unaccredited third Malloy term that is dictating public policy related to higher education without legislative oversight.
The political ties, friendships, and loyalties run so deep that it does not appear that legislative bills like this term’s HB6403—which would provide much-needed legislative oversight—can make it onto the floor for discussion.
If everything is as great as they say it is, the system office has nothing to fear from an outside audit or from legislative oversight. It will be a time to celebrate the millions of dollars they have saved, the great work they have done building up morale across the state in the educational sector, and strengthening an essential pillar of our economic infrastructure in the state.
Unfortunately, Students First is going to cost the state $100 million dollars. It has created a toxic, chaotic, divisive environment in the educational sector. And it has weakened a once strong and proud state institution.
I am asking you —respectfully— not to enable this with silence and inaction.
Let me give you two examples among many we might consider that demonstrate the benefits of looking at the evidence independently and drawing your own conclusions.
First, the system office has created an additional, new, and very puzzling regional level of bureaucracy to add to an already top-heavy leadership structure. Nobody actually knows what regional personnel are supposed to do other than to “help coordinate” between campuses. The cost for this new additional regional structure is between $6 and $14 million dollars a year, depending on how you calculate fringe benefits. Does this make sense to you? Is this what you would do?
And how can we be hiring expensive regional administrators when there is a hiring freeze at community colleges?
Wouldn’t this money be better spent investing in English and math teachers, counselors, EAs, Spanish teachers, STEM teachers, advisors, personnel to run food pantries on campuses, and building up our depleted faculty ranks with individuals who work directly with students?
The answer seems obvious to me. And yet, here we are.
Second, current thinking about effective leadership strongly encourages streamlining the decision-making process and disbursing autonomy and decision-making power widely among all elements of an organization.
The phrase you see again and again is “local, local, local.” That’s what community colleges are.
Why is the BOR moving in the opposite direction —building an expensive, top-heavy, bureaucratic model that strips autonomy and decision-making power from almost everyone, and centralizes power and control at the central office?
At the moment, campus CEOs/presidents are being stripped of leadership power and authority. On the rare occasions when they can replace essential personnel on their campuses, they are no longer even allowed to do their own hiring. This is done by the system office now.
Local leaders are not able to help build a campus culture and hire the personnel they want. Does this seem like a good idea to you?
Is this the model you would design if you wanted to strengthen community colleges in the state?
These are only two examples among many we could consider.
Most of the policies the system office is pursuing have met with resistance, skepticism, and disbelief from a large number of educators with decades of experience working directly with college students in our system.
Community colleges are, in fact, not being “saved.” They are being systemically dismantled —and turned into skeletons of their former selves. It appears that the ultimate goal is to make faculty and staff disposable, perhaps so that the state can improve its bond rating.
Is this how to build a world-class educational system for the citizens and families in this state, many of whom rely on community colleges for their access to higher education?
As we know, many students at community colleges are not well off financially and cannot afford to attend other kinds of institutions. Most have very little political power and most do not have wealthy, well connected friends and benefactors who can pull strings for them. They rely on public policy to work on their behalf.
I am afraid we are failing them terribly at the moment when it comes to higher education and strengthening our community college system.
Given that Connecticut community colleges serve many lower-income and first-generation students, the timing of this disastrous hostile takeover of the state’s community colleges by a group of unelected individuals who have not been accredited by any formal higher education oversight body is disturbing for equity reasons as well.
This crisis involving the state’s community colleges is an issue as important as any on your legislative agenda this year.
Community colleges have been engines of opportunity, hope, and prosperity in this state for decades. Their future is imperiled at the moment, however.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The long-term health and vitality of Connecticut and our economy hangs in the balance.
I respectfully invite you to look at the evidence yourself and draw your own independent conclusions.
You can use these troubling words to guide you: “I’ve heard Students First spoken of positively about only in these presentations by your administration.”
Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College. His new book, Democracy, Social Justice, and the American Community College, will be published in August by Palgrave Macmillan.
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