Neediest students first to be sacrificed in CSCU consolidation ‘plan’

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In his letter of April 3 to constituents of the Connecticut State College and Universities system recommending a plan to consolidate the state’s 12 community colleges in order to sustain the larger CSCU system, President Mark Ojakian maintains that this latest disruption in Connecticut higher education was never the goal of the consolidation that created CSCU in 2011.

However, since it was Ojakian who crafted that original reorganization plan for the Malloy administration and advanced the proposal with promises of savings to address shortfalls in the 2011-12 budget similar to those looming in 2017 and 2018, his denial seems somewhat disingenuous and promises to result in similarly disappointing outcomes.

We’ve seen this plan before, and we know the results.

Since its inception, CSCU has suffered from failures in leadership that have made national headlines.  Inside Higher Ed of April 4, 2017, described these failures as “burn[ing] through multiple presidents,” all selected by Gov. Dannel Malloy and Ojakian, two of whom were dismissed for granting unauthorized raises to themselves.

Ojakian’s letter says “we have not realized the potential that comes with developing a system … with a common goal.”

Indeed, rather than the promised successes and increased resources, the system has suffered declining enrollments – 11.1 percent in the last five years, according to Inside Higher Education, (April 4, 2017), declining state support, (12.5 percent decline since 2015, according to the Connecticut Mirror and additional reductions and looming deficits this year and next according to Ojakian: $35 million this year and $57 million next year. CT Mirror, April 3, 2017) and ongoing increases in costs, particularly related to personnel costs (80 percent of total spending with 95 percent of fulltime staff represented by bargaining units, also according to Ojakian in the CT Mirror.

Union concessions were granted to support the 2011 consolidation plan and state budget negotiated by  Ojakian and Gov. Malloy.  But apparently the concessions, like taxes, weren’t enough to produce promised efficiencies and improved services or to avoid ongoing rescissions, tuition increases, and further tax increases.

The pattern of disruption and decline began with Ojakian’s last plan and will no doubt continue with the current, deceptively titled Students First plan which was accepted by the Board of Regents on April 6, 2017 after being unveiled three days before. There will be no opportunity for legislative review, public debate, or consideration of constituent concerns.  If the plan had been rejected, Ojakian’s letter suggests other “more drastic” plans such as closing colleges, or making community colleges branches of the state universities will be reconsidered. Your choice.

As trust in politicians and flawed leaders erodes, we urge everyone with a voice and a vote to ask why the institutions closest to their constituents and communities are being sacrificed to political whim and historically faulty decision-making.  Within four years, the new system has had four leaders – all changes initiated by the governor’s office.

This turmoil continues to undermine the efforts of community college leaders to sustain the education and support services that provide educational opportunities for Connecticut’s students, especially its minority students who rely on affordable, accessible programs and services to overcome the socioeconomic and academic disadvantages that have resulted in Connecticut having the largest achievement gap in the nation. Two-thirds of the state’s African-American and Hispanic undergraduates enrolled in public higher education in Connecticut are enrolled at the community colleges.

Now these community college leaders and their colleges are viewed as the inevitable victims of the state’s failed leadership and the administration’s inability to restore the state’s fiscal health.  Far from considering students first, the students most in need and the institutions that serve them are the first to be sacrificed.

We urge resistance to this plan in order to sustain the opportunity for higher education.

Mary Anne Cox for the Connecticut Community College Roundtable, Advocates for Opportunity.

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