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Despite faculty opposition, the leader of Connecticut’s public colleges and universities is moving forward with plans to consolidate the state's 12 two-year institutions.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, presented his plan to consolidate the administrative functions of the community colleges to the system's accreditor April 11. This was the second time that he presented a plan to the accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education. When Ojakian originally proposed the consolidation plan nearly a year ago, the commission said it was not "persuaded that planning for the new Community College of Connecticut as outlined … is realistic."

“When we meet with NECHE, it’s to provide a status report on our progress since we heard from them last year,” Ojakian said. “We can assure them we’re on the right path and receiving guidance accordingly.… We’re following their guidance that we should look and act like one accredited institution.”

Ojakian’s consolidation proposal, also known as Students First, would place the 12 colleges and their satellite campuses under a single, centrally managed authority. Instead of 12 separate presidents for each college, the proposal creates three regional president positions. Six finalists for the positions were announced in March. According to the proposal, faculty, academic and student affairs staff would not be affected, but about 23 percent of the 750 administrative staff positions in the system would be cut. Ojakian said some of those positions would initially be reduced through employee retirements.

The single community college entity would be in place by 2023 and would save the 12 colleges a total of $23 million a year, Ojakian said.

“We’ve already realized some of the savings because as individuals have retired, we’ve replaced them with positions that would be part of the new organization,” Ojakian said, adding that the savings from retirements so far have come to about $4 million.

“The more critical piece to this is the student success piece,” he said. “How much additional revenue can we bring into the system because it’s easier for students to enroll, stay and complete?”

Faculty members who oppose the plan -- many of whom call themselves “reluctant warriors” -- question the cost-saving estimates of Ojakian and his administration and have called on state lawmakers to intervene. Last month, students and faculty protested the plan and presented Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, with a petition of more than 1,300 signatures opposing it.

“I don’t understand why the Legislature is accepting the numbers being thrown out by the system office and Ojakian,” said Lois Aime, president of the Norwalk Community College Senate and director of educational technology at the institution. “Why isn’t anybody looking for an outside auditing agency to look at this?”

Aime and some other faculty members have complained that they have not been able to view the financial information Ojakian used to determine his estimates.

State lawmakers are examining the statements Ojakian and other system administrators have made about the cost of the consolidation and the savings it could bring the colleges. Faculty members opposed to the consolidation have lobbied the Legislature to stop the consolidation or at least slow down the process. A bill that would require the Legislature to approve the consolidation or closing of any CSCU institutions is awaiting action in the State Senate.

“The Legislature should have some control over this because we’re dealing with public higher education,” Aime said. “The Board of Regents don’t answer to anybody, and they aren’t elected.”

Ojakian opposes the bill and warns that inviting more legislative oversight of the system would politicize the system's decision making. He said community colleges in districts with a smaller number of legislative delegates would lose out under a system that allows input from lawmakers.

“That does nobody any good, and it does a disservice to students,” he said

CSCU and its Board of Regents were created in 2011, when lawmakers merged the state's community colleges with its universities and Charter Oak State College, an online institution. Nine of the 15 voting board members are appointed by the governor, four are appointed by the Legislature and two students are selected by their peers.

Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said the bill will not stop the consolidation but is a good first step to confronting Ojakian’s proposal. Warshauer said he’s not opposed to consolidating some administrative functions in the system, or to Ojakian as the system’s president, but he is worried that centralizing management of the community colleges would lead to micromanagement and less academic freedom for instructors at the colleges, and eventually for those at the four state universities.

Faculty groups in the state are opposed to Ojakian’s plan for several reasons. They fear the colleges will lose their individual cultural identities and unique academic programs. Faculty members are also are concerned the colleges will be forced to deliver uniform programs whether or not they meet local work-force demands. Warshauer said faculty also fear that moving to a single accreditation process could jeopardize the individual accreditation of each the colleges, which are currently on different accreditation schedules.

Warshauer also said much of the streamlining that Ojakian proposed could be done without the centralization plan.

“The problem has never been that the community colleges or state universities are poor stewards of state money,” he said. “The problem is clear: the Legislature is putting fewer dollars in education because our state is in economic trouble.”

A report last year from EAB, an educational research and technology services company, found that per-student state spending for college students was below pre-recession levels across the country. State spending on Connecticut students decreased by 12.6 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the report.

Warshauer said the system, the regents and the faculty should be working together to help the system become more efficient and put the colleges on better financial footing, but instead Ojakian’s answer has been to "blow up the system and remake it."

The total combined enrollment in the state’s community colleges is at a 10-year low, although some colleges are seeing an increase in students. Overall enrollment was 51,105 students in 2008; that number fell to 47,912 students in 2018, according to CSCU data. Enrollment was highest in 2010 at 58,253 students. System administrators project enrollment will decline an additional 8 percent in the next decade. Community colleges nationally have projected that their enrollments will continue to decline over the next several years.

Ojakian said budget shortfalls will only compound the problem.

“The governor’s budget proposal that was released in February flat funded us,” he said. “But even being flat funded, our community colleges are poised to end next fiscal year with a $25 million shortfall.”

If the financial and enrollment problems worsen then someone will have to decide which of the 12 colleges and four satellite campuses continue to exist, he said.

“Somebody will have to pick winners and losers, and it won’t be me,” he said.

The CSCU board approved a 5 percent tuition increase at the state universities last month. Ojakian said over the next couple of weeks the board will consider increasing tuition at the community colleges.

“We will not balance the burden of our deficit on the backs of students,” he said.

During a recent legislative hearing on the consolidation, Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, the colleges' accreditor, wouldn't comment on the steps Ojakian has taken, but she said he has been in regular contact with the commission to “avoid surprises.”

“This is a very big deal, and I don’t know of any other merger as ambitious as the one being planned here,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the commission continues to work with the system, assuming they go forward.”

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