Right fervor, wrong focus. More than Meriden campus at stake

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The potential closing of Middlesex Community College’s Meriden Center is terrible news. It was impossible not to get choked up when discussing it with my class in Meriden. Students who have already overcome enormous odds just to pursue a college degree are now faced with yet another obstacle, this time seemingly insurmountable to many of them.

Nevertheless, there is one very good thing that has come from the decision to close the campus: attention.

When the budget deficits from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget were passed to the Board of Regents and to the individual schools, college presidents were faced with the unenviable task of making a sort of Sophie’s choice; they had two days to decide where to cut fat from schools already operating on barebones budgets.

Had Middlesex decided to shave the operating costs by laying off faculty and staff, as Three Rivers Community College has and others are likely to do, there would be, perhaps, a flicker of public or legislative interest, but certainly not the firestorm that the Meriden campus closing has ignited.

A Connecticut legislator, regarding cuts colleges were forced to make, recently stated that he “[doesn’t] know what happened to the rest of the whole community college and four-year school system.” That is because cutting staff and student services do not garner the same interest or attention as closing a campus or center. It took the closing of the Meriden Center to show the real, tangible consequences of cutting funding to higher education.

Closing one campus is lamentable and severely impacts a few hundred students. However, one could argue that firing many of those who work directly with students daily is ultimately more harmful to more students’ educations. The consequences are not as severe or immediate, but they affect a much greater number of students in myriad ways that are simply less tangible.

Cutting programs and highly qualified teachers does not lead to the best education possible. So what good is keeping a building open if there is not money to fill it with the support services, resources, and the quality instruction students need and deserve?

That is why the state senate’s well-intentioned move to prevent the closing of the Meriden Center is worrisome. Passing a law mandating that the Center stay open is only as good as the funding that comes with it. If Middlesex must continue to fund the Meriden Center without additional support, this will inevitably result in cuts to personnel.

Hopefully, as legislators fight to keep a campus from closing, they also have the foresight to appropriate the funds necessary to maintain the quality of education our students expect and deserve. Otherwise, they will be saving the building only to hollow it.

One can only wish that this issue galvanizes enough lawmakers and strengthens their will to revamp the Board of Regents, which, since its inception, raised top administrators’ salaries while simultaneously raising tuition for students. It was a mismanagement of funds that led initial Board of Regents President Robert Kennedy to resign.

The current iteration of the Board of Regents is also being criticized for making poor financial decisions, and its new president soon may face a vote of no confidence from faculty leaders across the system.

Since its inception, the Board of Regents’s management has been chaotic at best; it was a governance body created without a clear plan. As the legislature continues to consider ways to close our budget deficit, the role, funding, and necessity of the BoR must also be questioned, especially in the context of campus level cuts that impact students directly.

Every legislative decision should be made with a clear understanding of the consequences and costs – and that includes creating a legal mandate to keep the Meriden Center open without a clear path to funding.

Most simply, if legislators ignore the larger issue and do not choose to demand greater fiscal restraint from the Board of Regents and to reduce the ongoing budget cuts to the CSCU system, then layoffs are inevitable for those who help students achieve their goals and earn a degree.

Sadly, the bulk of the people let go will be those actually on the grounds of the college campuses, those with the most student contact and those who keep each campus running. Worse, the layoffs will likely be based not on merit, but on nothing more than “time served”: employees in their first three years of appointment — hired because of their expertise and their abilities to help students thrive — will be let go.

Of course, those who aren’t laid off will certainly be asked to make salary or benefit concessions, again. And next fiscal year, or a few down the road, this will all happen, again. That is unless the lawmakers deliberately overhaul a broken governance structure to make it more cost effective while restoring adequate funding to higher education.

Ultimately, the conversation that needs to happen is not about the Meriden Center; rather, it is about the necessity — and obligation — to properly manage and adequately fund Connecticut’s state colleges and universities.

The closing of the Meriden Center is just a flashpoint in the much quieter, ongoing crisis that is the steady defunding of CSCU. The issue is not just the real hardship for the two or three hundred Middlesex students who only take their classes in Meriden; it is also the disservice to the 90,000 students in the CSCU system who will pay more for their education and get less in return.

The students who have passed through our schools will tell you how much we do with how little we have. The faculty and staff at Connecticut’s community colleges will tell you that how little we have will ultimately undermine how much we can do, as open access institutions, to be the colleges of our communities.

Terry McNulty is an English professor at Middlesex Community College.

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