Community College Consolidation

Two small two-year institutions in northwest Ohio craft plan to combine key administrative positions to save money. Officials say no merger is planned -- but faculty leaders are skeptical.

May 12, 2015

Two community colleges roughly 75 miles apart in northwest Ohio are creating a new regional government agency smack-dab between them so they can consolidate many administrative functions and -- potentially -- academic and other programs, too.

Those prospects excite the leaders of the two institutions, Terra State and Northwest State Community Colleges, who say the arrangement will help them save money that can be shifted to improve student services. But the idea worries some faculty and staff members at the two institutions, who see it as a precursor to a merger and lost jobs.

The Northern Ohio Community College District, as the new entity will be called, was announced by the presidents of Northwest State and Terra State Monday after their boards approved a framework of the plan over the weekend.

Essentially, the new entity, to be located in Toledo, 40 miles away from each campus, will operate somewhat like community college districts do in California and other states, providing a central administrative structure but, at least for the foreseeable future, no direct governance oversight of the community colleges themselves. The Northwest State and Terra State governing boards each will appoint two trustees to lead the new "regional council of government," as the new structure is formally known under Ohio law.

The presidents of Terra State and Northwest State said the arrangement -- which has been the topic of behind-the-scenes discussions for more than a year -- would help the two institutions deal with reductions in the share of operating funds the state government is providing, and with declining enrollments many Rust Belt states are experiencing. (Figures from the Ohio Board of Regents showed drops of 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in the fall 2014 head count enrollments at Terra and Northwest, both of which enroll about 2,600 students.)

"This will allow us to hit the reset button in how we are structured," said Jerome Webster, Terra State's president, in a way that will let the institutions combine administrative resources and shift the savings to support students and academic programs.

The leaders insist, though, that this is a move of opportunity, not desperation. "We're both financially very sound," said Thomas L. Stuckey, Northwest State's president. "You make opportunities for the future when you have the time and energy and dollars to pursue new ideas." The presidents characterized the arrangement as the sort of creative thinking that colleges of all sorts are exploring to help them weather difficult economic circumstances and shifting student demographics. The closest parallel -- of consolidating administrators without merging campuses -- probably lies in the State University of New York System, which sought to put three pairs of nearby campuses under joint leadership. Only two of the three pairings stuck, as employees on two of the campuses fought the change.

When the presidents discussed possible collaboration a year ago, they realized that pending retirements of senior administrators at both institutions "lined up in a way that was a total surprise to both of us," Stuckey said. "One campus has a very strong person, the other has a person who will be retiring in three or four years," and vice versa.

When the new entity begins in July, it will consist of a vice president for academic affairs and chief financial officer, with the former coming from Northwest State and the latter from Terra. Future positions will include those overseeing human resources, information technology, marketing and public relations, and workforce development, among others.

The two presidents described the sharing of employees as a way for two small institutions to improve the quality of their leadership teams, by letting senior managers focus on a narrower set of areas at two institutions rather than each college having smaller groups of managers spread themselves thin at a single institution. "This is way we can get the bench strength to do the things that need to be done without one person having 10 areas of responsibility that he or she might not fully understand," Stuckey said.

The presidents said the new structure will not result in any change in the two colleges' relationships with their faculties (and their faculty and staff unions), and that through the potential joint offering of academic programs, professors might see opportunities to keep courses alive that might otherwise wither because of declining enrollments.

"That’s one of the efficiencies we’re striving for," said Webster.

Faculty and Staff Concerns

Theoretically, much of what the two presidents say about the new arrangement makes sense, said Michael Smithback, an associate professor of chemistry at Terra State and president of the Terra Faculty Association, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. "In a perfect world, I could welcome the idea of shared resources. In areas like human resources and others, that kind of consolidation makes sense. But given the climate at Terra, it's hard for us to have a lot of confidence, because there's such a disparity between words and actions."

The Terra State faculty voted no confidence in Webster last month, criticizing nonrenewals of faculty contracts and other issues. (Northwest State's faculty union also voted no confidence in its president last year.) In an interview, Smithback and other union leaders offered a long list of grievances and areas of dispute with administrators, including over enrollment numbers, technology problems, the hiring of consultants and more.

Faculty leaders said the overall climate makes them disinclined to take what the president says at face value, or to believe that the new arrangement is really about cutting administrative costs and shifting the funds to support students. Having just heard about the new structure at a meeting Monday morning -- Webster said the colleges were not obliged to get faculty input, and had not -- Smithback said faculty and staff leaders had lots of questions that administrators told them to submit in writing and said they would soon answer.

Among them is that the plan administrators presented shows the Terra State and Northwest State service areas being separated by a strip in the middle that belongs to Owens Community College, another two-year institution in the Toledo area. Owens has been placed on fiscal watch by the state, and is currently struggling to deal with its financial problems.

But union leaders at Terra suspect that the arrangement between the two institutions is just a temporary fix that will ultimately lead to a merger in which Terra, Northwest State and Owens all would become part of the University of Toledo, much as several other public universities in Ohio have added two-year branches over the years.

"So while they say this change will have no impact on faculty, as they're presenting it, the kind of rearrangement we see as likely would have massive impact on faculty," Smithback said. "Right now we're left to depend on predictions upon promises upon extrapolations."

The presidents, Webster and Stuckey, said when asked directly during their telephone news conference Monday that the arrangement would "preserve the individual distinctiveness" of the institutions. But they prefaced that statement with a phrase they uttered at multiple points during the call: "at this point."


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