In Connecticut it’s time to adopt a community college

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

It is a dark hour, indeed, right now for Connecticut community colleges.

The Board of Regents (BOR) has proposed a shockingly bad reorganization plan, “Students First,” which will strip community colleges of their presidents, academic deans, and other top leadership, along with their unique identities, local traditions, and ties to local communities.

This new BOR plan will transform our beloved community colleges into giant box stores. They will have plenty of merchandise, but no one around to help you find it. Be ready to wander around aimlessly asking, “Is there anyone running this place?” The answer, alas, will be “No.”

For 50 years, ever since they were each conceived and chartered, Connecticut community colleges have been independent institutions tied directly and historically to their local communities. This is an essential part of their core identity and purpose. To demolish this is to strike a fatal blow to the very heart of these incredibly valuable state institutions.

Each community college is located in a unique local community, each with its own distinctive business environments, student needs, and histories. Establishing one bureaucracy to handle all 53,000 students who attend these colleges —and these very different local and distinct environments— is ridiculous.

If leadership is essential to the health of any organization or institution —and we all know it is; leadership makes all the difference — then why isn’t it essential for community colleges?

Do we really want to destroy one of the great public institutions in our state? Our 12 community colleges have been engines of opportunity in this state for half a century, humbly going about their work with very little publicity or fanfare.

Because this BOR idea is so reckless and ill-conceived, I’m afraid we can no longer have confidence in Mark E. Ojakian, the president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities who is spearheading this proposal, or the BOR, who appear eager to endorse it. Neither Ojakian nor the BOR are acting in our interests or in the interests of citizens in the state.

We are going to have to solve this problem ourselves. In doing so, we will be embracing an essential democratic principle: If the people lead, the politicians will follow.

Because these bad ideas are being driven by austerity, we’re going to have to come up with some money. My proposal is to address this problem through a crowd-funding program called Adopt a Community College.

This program would create endowed positions at each of the 12 community colleges to fund salaries for a college president and an academic dean. This program would be supervised by a non-profit, all-volunteer group of community college graduates and would be independent of state legislative budgets and economic conditions. This program will ensure that Connecticut community colleges have the leadership and independence they need. Because these will be endowed positions, we will be drawing salary from the interest in these accounts into perpetuity. Once these positions are set up, community colleges can get back to doing what they do best—teaching students.

We’ve all read the stories about crowd-sourcing —how great things can be accomplished with many small donations. That’s the idea here. As Nelson Mandela famously remarked: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Wealthy individuals may choose to donate more than $5 or $10, and that will help us reach our goals more quickly. We will need community volunteers from each local area to set up accounts and establish volunteer committees to collect this money.

We may also get a few millionaires to endow these positions on their own. This being the Christmas season and all, one might ask of millionaires, “What can you give your spouses this Christmas that might surprise or impress them? How would an endowed presidency at a Connecticut community college look under the tree?” I think it would look pretty good.

We only need a handful of you. So millionaires and billionaires, now’s your chance to step up and make a difference.

Of course, one stipulation that I am going to have to insist on for large donations is that this will be a gift only. You will have no say whatsoever in college policy or programs.

We’ve seen interventions into the world of education by millionaires before, and it has it has not been pretty, I’m afraid. You will have to be satisfied knowing that your donations will be helping thousands of your neighbors, fellow Connecticut residents, and their families —every day. Let’s leave the running of community colleges to the professionals, most of whom have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the lives of students.

You’ve seen “Adopt a Highway” and even “Adopt an Abandoned Kitten.” It’s sad to think that we’ve come to the point where we need an “Adopt a Community College” program in Connecticut. But we have arrived at that point, alas. Community colleges in Connecticut are about to be completely dismantled and turned into something unrecognizable.

Let’s honor our great Connecticut community colleges not by demolishing them, but by making them stronger. Phone lines will be open soon.

Patrick Sullivan is a member of the English Department at Manchester Community College.

What do you think?

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