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The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is tumbling down an enrollment and funding cliff, landing it back in line for cuts and consolidations.

The system's president, Mark E. Ojakian, laid out a pair of consolidation recommendations Monday that he will put before the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education this week. Ojakian is recommending a systemwide consolidation of administrative and non-student-facing personnel. And he is recommending consolidating CSCU’s 12 community colleges into a single, centrally managed organization.

Taken together, the two moves are intended to save an estimated $41 million annually. Ojakian cast them as necessary for a state system that has had to freeze hiring amid budget shortfalls and that is in line to lose tens of millions of dollars in public funding in coming years because of a state budget crisis. The president also signaled further changes could be in store down the line, saying he wants to look at potential regional partnerships between the system’s four-year universities and its community colleges.

Those proposals could dredge up controversy in Connecticut, which is only a few years removed from a messy 2011 merger of four state universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College. After that merger -- which did not include the state’s separately governed flagship, the University of Connecticut -- CSCU burned through multiple presidents before Ojakian took over in September 2015. Ojakian, a former chief of staff for Democratic Governor Dannel P. Malloy, is credited with helping to craft the merger that created CSCU in the first place.

Millions of dollars in cost savings were touted as the state prepared to merge the universities and community colleges in 2011. The system was also supposed to bolster access, affordability and student success, Ojakian wrote Monday in an open letter announcing his consolidation proposals. But the reality of the system has not matched the goals.

“For a variety of reasons, we have not realized the power that comes with developing a system in which interrelated and interdependent entities come together around a common goal,” Ojakian wrote. “I believe the time is now to fully embrace the potential of our system.”

Living up to the cost savings and student benefits promised by a coordinated system will not be easy, according to those who know public higher education in Connecticut. Many of the same barriers exist today that dogged Connecticut’s institutions six years -- and that are creating hurdles as other states consider mergers between public institutions. Steep budget challenges, quirks of geographic placement, institutional identity and a heavily unionized work force can all make change difficult.

But, according to Ojakian, change is necessary.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Ojakian wrote. “Our system as it is will not survive.”

State appropriations to CSCU, a $1.2 billion system, have dropped by 12.4 percent since 2015, according to the system. Between the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years alone, appropriations fell by $35.7 million -- 5.9 percent.

System leaders are anticipating additional cuts. They expect at least another $35 million drop in the 2018 fiscal year, a number that could potentially balloon if the state is unable to free up money in a series of labor talks that are currently under way. Meanwhile, CSCU leaders expect an increasing structural deficit as operating costs rise faster than revenue.

Most of the system’s costs are in labor -- 80 percent. And 95 percent of its full-time employees are covered under union contracts.

Meanwhile, enrollment has been falling, dropping 11.1 percent in the last five years. Systemwide fall head count enrollment fell from 95,962 in 2011 to 85,318 in 2016. It will be difficult for leaders to change those trends, as the number of high schoolers graduating each year in Connecticut is projected to drop a whopping 26 percent between 2011-12 and 2031-32. Nearly all of the system’s students, 96 percent, pay in-state tuition.

Ojakian has already proposed raising tuition by 4 percent at the system’s universities and by 2.5 percent at its community colleges in each of the next two years. That would push university tuition and fees to $10,901 and community college tuition to $4,384 in the 2019 fiscal year. Charter Oak tuition would rise by 4 percent each year, up to $8,234 in 2019. But system leaders don’t believe they can close the expected deficit with hiring freezes or tuition increases -- at least, not without hurting students. Reductions in staff are needed, they argue.

So they drafted their two consolidation proposals. The systemwide administrative consolidation would cover back-office functions like human resources, purchasing and information technology. The goal would be to save $13 million annually after the changes are phased in over one or two years.

The community college organizational consolidation would create one institution managed centrally -- the 12 community college campuses and most or all of their satellite campuses would remain open. Savings would be targeted at $28 million after a one- or two-year phase-in period.

Neither change would cut faculty jobs or student-facing functions, according to Ojakian. Officials also considered closing community colleges, consolidating universities or regional consolidation between universities and colleges. Those moves would have led to more savings but came with drawbacks. Still, Ojakian called for looking onto regional partnerships between colleges and universities.

“As I have said repeatedly, all options have been on the table,” he wrote. “We examined the closing of community college campuses and the operational consolidation of our universities. We looked at regional consolidation of the universities and colleges and elimination of system office. Those options did not meet our guiding principles, were not feasible for long-term growth or were potentially more costly.”

Faculty members knew Ojakian would unveil a major proposal this week. But they only learned details about it Monday. They plan to meet to discuss it soon, according to Barbara Richards, chair of the system’s Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education and a professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

“There will be a lot of discussion on Thursday and Friday,” she said. “This is obviously a big thing.”

Others quickly voiced concerns, however. Roberta Willis is a Democratic former member of Connecticut’s House of Representatives. She chaired the House’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee and was an early skeptic of the 2011 merger that created CSCU.

Now, she worries about the ramifications of administrative consolidation for local campuses.

“They’re saying that this is a way to keep all 12 community colleges open,” she said. “My argument is that I feel that, well, the community colleges particularly have relationships with the community. They’re the ones that meet with business leaders. They’re the ones that meet with local school systems.”

Presidents of community colleges raise money and make the case to the state system that a new program is needed, Willis said. It’s possible no one will be left to fill that role if local presidents are eliminated.

Connecticut is far from alone in its move toward consolidation. Many other states have started looking seriously at mergers amid budget shortfalls and challenging demographic projections. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education leaders are taking a hard look at their system’s future. Leaders in other states, such as Vermont, have followed similar courses.

Those involved in the 2011 merger knew Connecticut was facing a dwindling pool of high school graduates in coming years, said Michael Meotti, former executive vice president for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, who is now executive director at the Washington Student Achievement Council. But at the time they were focused on consolidating a university system office and a college system office that were about 100 yards away from each other on a street in Hartford, he said.

Meotti added that the idea of future consolidations might have been a matter of general speculation in 2011. But there have been many developments since then. Namely, the state has gone through continuous budget struggles, and legislators often have to turn to higher education cuts in such situations.

“Connecticut has gone from a situation where you would have a budget crisis every five years, which was the national norm, to become like some other states, where it’s almost a constant siege of budget deficits because of challenges on the revenue side,” Meotti said.

Regents will decide Thursday whether to take the next consolidation step. If they approve the proposals, leaders want to develop a full plan to implement changes by the beginning of July.

Connecticut’s legislative leaders spoke positively about Ojakian and his plans, although they would not have to approve them. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican, told The CT Mirror Ojakian “gets the big picture.” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat, said the system president has been pitching his plan in a way that was not done previously.

“I think he’s spent a lot of time talking to folks in the system -- and also listening, which is a massive departure from what has happened in the past,” Duff said, according to The CT Mirror. “I think the bright spot in his plan is he doesn’t cut faculty positions and really brings structural changes into the system.”

It’s not clear whether constituencies will resist the changes. An AFT Connecticut spokesman declined comment when contacted Monday.

But the latest developments could serve as a wake-up call, said Willis, the former state legislator who led the Connecticut House’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. She finds the idea of cuts painful, saying higher education always seems to be hit when state funding is tight.

“It’s throwing down the gauntlet,” Willis said.

Still, she said Ojakian seems to be receiving support from different constituencies like faculty members and staff.

“He does reach out,” she said. “I think they feel he has their best interest at heart. That’s an important step, that that trust building happens.”

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