Textbook bad leadership at the Board of Regents

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

I am alarmed and shocked by the recent “Students First” proposal by the Board of Regents, which proposes to dismantle Connecticut’s community college system. This proposal is likely to go down in history as a paradigmatic case of bad management and the worst kind of public policy.

It’s almost breathtaking how poorly this idea has been thought through and executed. Among the many problems with this proposal that state citizens should be alarmed about are the following:

  1. Haste. The Board of Regents announced this outrageous plan to address budgetary shortfalls by devastating Connecticut’s community colleges —and then voted to approve it just a few days later. This haste suggests fear — that if time were allowed for discussion and input, this proposal would be revealed for what it is: a very, very bad idea.
  1. It’s dumb. How can we save money? Let’s lop the entire administrative level off a great institution that has been serving the state of Connecticut with great distinction for almost 50 years. Teachers can just teach. They don’t need presidents, academic deans, or administrators. If this is true, how come the Board of Regents can’t do without a president or administrators? Obviously, any organization that hopes to be successful needs leadership, and this is especially important for community colleges, which are embedded in local communities and have developed all sorts of important local ties to their communities that often stretch back for decades. Outsourcing this leadership and liaison work to an absent, distant entity obviously takes the “community” out of community college.
  1. It’s imagination-less. Creativity and “thinking outside the box” have become key themes in the business world in recent years. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, business writer Daniel Pink suggests that the future will belong to creative thinkers. Richard Florida makes much the same point in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum even call for a greater focus on teaching creativity in schools in their book about America’s imperiled position in the new global economy, That Used to Be Us.

Where is the creativity in this proposal? Where is the innovative problem solving here? Citizens of the state are paying Mark E. Ojakian, the president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, almost $400,000 a year for this kind of thinking and leadership. Is this the best we can come up with? (I have some creative ideas myself that I will offer below.)

  1. It’s bullying. This new proposal, despite being named “Students First,” is targeting the most economically vulnerable and politically powerless college student population in the state, community college students. It is an attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of these students by making the bulk of the changes and cost savings for higher education at the community college level. This is shameful.
  1. It’s top down. Not a single community college faculty or staff member was consulted as this plan was being devised. There was no shared leadership. There was no shared governance. The BOR is basically saying, “These are our ideas and this is how it will be. We don’t want or need your input.”

American social psychologist Douglas McGregor’s famous “Theory X” authoritarian management model showed the dangers of this top-down strategy. It kills motivation and innovation, and creates divisiveness and bad morale. I respectfully recommend, instead, Tom Peters’s famous idea from In Search of Excellence: “management by walking around.” This is a management strategy based on, well, all the things we don’t have here. Shared leadership. Shared governance. Listening. A sense of common purpose and respect for all stakeholders.

  1. Perhaps most Importantly, it’s out of touch with national trends. Days after Ojakian and the Board of Regents announced this plan to dismantle and fatally compromise a great Connecticut institution, and raise tuition dramatically, and potentially add over $1,000 in hidden lab fees to college costs, the state of New York was investing in their community colleges and announcing free tuition for residents.

A stark contrast, indeed. I heard people last week seriously discussing moving out of Connecticut to New York because of this legislation. A very bad sign. Talk about “brain drain.”

This program to provide free tuition is part of a growing national trend that is focused on long-term economic growth. Tennessee (The Tennessee Promise) and Oregon (the Oregon Promise) also have free tuition programs for students attending community colleges, and a number of other states are working toward this type of program as well.

A key design feature of Tennessee Promise is its funding model, which seeks to keep the program insulated from fluctuating state budget conditions. As Paul Fain reports in an interview with Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, program designers “estimated an initial annual price tag to the state of $34 million. To cover that cost, and do so in a way that would be protected from future budget cuts, Haslam called for the creation of a self-sustaining $300 million endowment.”

Now there is some creative, forward-looking thinking.

In terms of better idea, here are my suggestions:

  1. Immediately establish a blue ribbon panel charged with creating a self-sustaining $300 million endowment that can be used to fund Connecticut Promise, which will provide free tuition for students at Connecticut community colleges starting in 2019.
  1. Trim the BOR budget by 50 percent. If community colleges don’t need administration, neither does the BOR.
  1. Empanel a Commission of Higher Education to chart a new course for higher education in Connecticut for the next 20 years. This panel needs to think boldly, creatively, and optimistically about our state and the role of higher education in the lives of our citizens. They can start by reading the Truman Commission Report, published in 1947 by President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education. We need a master plan not filled with bromides and opaque language about “learning outcomes,” but really innovative, creative, Utopian thinking about higher education.
  1. Schedule a higher education summit meeting this spring, inviting all interested stakeholders to share ideas and think creatively about ways we can work together to trim costs and save money and move forward together. All voices and idea need to be heard and innovative solutions need to be embraced and encouraged.

There is a way forward out of this budget crisis, but that path will require much more creativity, leadership, and collaborative problem-solving than we’ve seen thus far. Let’s get to work.

Patrick Sullivan is an English professor at Manchester Community College and the author of a book about community colleges, “Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College,” scheduled to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May.

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