Faculty Backlash Over Conn.'s Troubled Consolidation Plan

After the accreditor for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system pushed back on plans to consolidate the state's 12 community colleges, some faculty groups are calling for new leadership and more funding.

June 4, 2018
 

In the weeks since the accreditor for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system rejected plans to consolidate the state's 12 community colleges into a single system, a growing number of faculty groups have called for an end to the plan and for the departure of the leaders who proposed it.

The proposal would have shrunk the community college side of the system from 12 presidents to one vice chancellor, reduced other administrative positions and eliminated campus financial and academic officers.

But in the wake of the system's accreditor turning down the proposal, faculty senates and leadership organizations at Central Connecticut State University, Naugatuck Valley Community CollegeNorwalk Community College, Three Rivers Community College and the Connecticut State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors have called for a change to the Board of Regents, greater investment in the system or Mark Ojakian, the system's president, to step down.

Nine of the 15 Regent positions and the president of the system are appointed by the governor. Four of the Regents are appointed by the Legislature and the other two members are students elected by their peers.

Last month, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges, the system's accreditor, expressed concerns with the consolidation plan, which Ojakian's office has argued would save money amid declining enrollments and decreases in state funding. The commission said the proposed Community College of Connecticut would be a new institution and not a "substantive change" to the system -- meaning the merged colleges would have to become candidates for initial accreditation, which could take five years. Despite the setback, the system's leaders are continuing to push a merger.

"Considering the punitive comments made by [the commission], by moving forward President Ojakian and the [Board of Regents] jeopardize the accreditation of the community colleges and the state universities. The … commission did not reject this plan but they made abundantly clear their skepticism about its feasibility. By moving forward our students' ability to access financial aid is threatened," the resolution from Norwalk's Faculty Senate said.

The system hasn't responded to the faculty groups. A spokesperson said these same groups opposed the consolidation plan since it was first proposed.

"Both my team and staff at NEASC have been working to identify ways we can meet our goals to address student needs while coming to terms with our fiscal conditions," Ojakian said in a May 10 email update on the proposal. "We're exploring options such as moving gradually toward consolidating 12 colleges, first merging into three regions, (for example) three accredited colleges with four campuses each, or some variation, that breaks the path to a single college into steps over a number of years."

Ojakian, who added in his letter that tuition will not increase next year, is expected to release more details of the system's plan in late June. Meanwhile, the system has until July 30 to send a consolidation proposal to the regional accreditor.

Lois Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College and president of the College Senate, said since NEASC's letter there has been concern over how the system will move forward.

"Something needs to be done," she said. "What has happened so far is [Ojakian] has wasted a tremendous amount of time, money and effort on everyone's part to put something forward that NEASC was critical of, and they didn't outright reject it, but they were critical of the concept."

Elena Tapia, president of Connecticut State's AAUP, said the organization was "relieved" to hear NEASC's response to the consolidation plan.

"For months, CSU-AAUP has advocated for a more measured, thoughtful and research-based approach to find creative solutions," she said in a written statement. "Rather than talk of closures and consolidations, it would behoove the Board of Regents to find the political will to push for greater investment in public higher education. Rather than orchestrating more cuts, the Board of Regents should work to create a plan that truly utilizes the skills, insights and knowledge of the faculty, staff and students."

But one of the biggest complaints from faculty is that they've been kept out of consolidation discussions, Tapia said in an interview.

"We're incredulous," she said. "Any of us at the community college or state university, we have gone through NEASC accreditation. We know how extensive and how detailed it is and what a gargantuan experience it is, and we don't believe they have the know-how to do that. We also believe they have continually rejected our input."

Aime said there's concern at Norwalk especially because the college is expected to deliver a five-year accreditation report next year to NEASC as part of maintaining the institution's current accreditation. Some Norwalk faculty and staff members are questioning if the college would have the necessary administrative levels to maintain the college's accreditation after the proposed consolidation.

Ultimately, the faculty groups have argued that a merger wouldn't alleviate the system's decline in resources and enrollment, but more state funding could.

According to a 2017 State Higher Education Executive Officers Association report, Connecticut saw the largest decrease in state appropriations from the previous year of any other state -- a 12.1 percent decrease. Since the recession, state funding per student is down 19 percent.

Tapia said some state legislators want to invest more in public higher education and are pushing for more funding for the system.

"Quite frankly, the State of Connecticut could just fund higher education," Aime said. "We're one of the wealthiest states in the country and next to bottom in supporting higher education."

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