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Lafayette Hall at Manchester Community College

Courtesy Connecticut State Colleges and Universities

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and national recession, the planned merger of Connecticut's community colleges is moving forward.

At the most recent meeting to review the plan in June, the New England Commission of Higher Education accepted the latest updates from the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system on its plans to merge the 12 community colleges into one accredited college and voted to take no further action on concerns raised through public comment.

The system also presented the approved name for the new college, Connecticut State Community College. The system has also appointed an interim president, David Levinson, the former president of Norwalk Community College, and leadership team for the new institution and moved some resources from the system budget to the single college, which will keep all of the current campuses open under one accreditation.

For the next planned meeting in April, the commission asked the system to provide more information on the system of internal governance for the college, current and projected enrollment, and the budgets and position changes at the 12 separate colleges and the proposed single college.

The college is still on track to be operational in 2023, according to Mark Ojakian, president of the system.

"We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve made a significant amount of progress," he said. "I’m very pleased with the outcome of our meeting, and we intend to build on the momentum we currently have."

Ojakian is confident that the COVID-19 pandemic won't affect the merger. If anything, he believes the recession and pandemic will lead to an enrollment surge for community colleges.

"Folks are going to be looking to either complete their education, retool their skills or start a new degree or certificate program to give them an opportunity to be gainfully employed," Ojakian said. "Given the economy, the Connecticut community colleges are positioned to really be a tool in rebuilding the finances of the state."

This was also always a long-term strategy, he said, not short term. Ojakian acknowledged that, in the immediate future, everything will be a challenge. But the end results should make up for the short-term struggle. The system's projection that it will save $23 million annually with the merger, mostly through consolidation and eliminating redundant staff positions, has not changed, he said.

"I believe, and our projections bear this out, that we will see an increase in revenue based on all the initiatives," he added. "The combination will put our system in a very good place in the future."

But the plan still faces opposition. Throughout the years-long process, faculty members have spoken out against the plan.

Most concerned faculty members still feel that way, said Seth Freeman, a professor and department chair of business and technology at Capital Community College and vice president for faculty for the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges union. And they don't feel that the commission's update addressed their concerns.

​"Specifically our concern regarding the lack of shared governance and violation of shared governance," he said. ​"Moving forward, there is no meaningful shared governance in the current process."

There are several committees working on shared governance models and curriculum for the merger, and faculty and staff sit on those committees. But Freeman said many feel they aren't heard.

​"Any ideas that are floated that don’t go along with what their plan is are disregarded," he said. "That’s the experience of those who join the committees."

He hopes the accrediting commission sees this as a violation of shared governance principles and noted that it did request more information on that model at the June meeting.

"If this is ultimately approved, there will be a continual fight on behalf of the faculty to ensure there is a meaningful shared governance in place," he said.

Judy Wallace, a coordinator and professor of biology at Middlesex Community College, joined several committees working to develop the merger plan, including the Students First Academic and Student Affairs Consolidation Committee and guided pathways taskforce. She joined because, as a faculty member, she feels she has a good understanding of the colleges' mission and commitment to students.

"I want to put students first," she said. "I think that it’s moving forward and I would rather be part of the conversation and help to mold it and help to bring the faculty and student voice to the table than not."

She understands why her colleagues are opposed, but she also thinks there are good aspects to the plan.

For example, having a common application and leveraging resources as a group makes sense, she said. Guided pathways, which helps students get on a path in college that will lead to their preferred profession, is a model she believes in deeply, she said.

"Initially I was concerned. I still don’t have all the answers," Wallace said. "But I have to say, there are some really important tenets to it that I think are valuable. You can't throw everything out and say it’s all bad."

Wallace also feels that she's been given a voice at meetings, and that faculty have been heard. She does wish that faculty had come up with another plan after being so opposed to the merger, a point Ojakian has also made.

​"Mark’s plan is bold, there’s no denying that. You’re going from 12 separate community colleges and merging it into one of the largest in the country," she said. "And regardless of how smart it is, there’s always going to be opposition to it."

Freeman said faculty and staff members did come with an alternative to the merger, instead proposing that the system find a way to share services and reduce costs, while allowing the campuses to retain individual accreditation. Either way, he said, it's disingenuous for the system or others to put the responsibility on faculty.

​"That’s not really our charge," he said, adding that the faculty feel any proposed ideas that don't align with the system's plan are disregarded.​

Ojakian understands the consolidation is a big change, and people are going to be uncomfortable with it, but "if we don’t continue down the path we’re on, the folks that will suffer in the end will be the students."

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