Deeply flawed community college consolidation must be slowed down

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education meets today to consider a consolidation of state community colleges. Since April, the deeply flawed proposal by state colleges and universities system president Mark Ojakian has been moving at warp speed, often under the radar. The board must slow it down. If not, the legislature must step in; should it too default, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the accrediting entity, must withhold its approval.

All too often now major public policy initiatives –the Republican tax plan now in Congress, all four Malloy state budgets—  get nothing like the public scrutiny and debate they sorely need. It’s happened here.

The board’s faculty advisory committee never saw this plan prior to its release. Today’s meeting sets aside exactly 30 minutes for all staff, faculty and public comment. Faculty senates across the state opposed it, but it was like shouting up a waterfall; all their vital questions went unanswered. In a semblance of outreach, Ojakian went on a low-key listening tour, but sweeping change demands real outreach to, and formal input from, all significant stakeholders.

The plan’s claimed $28 million savings are, at best, highly speculative. As a former state comptroller, I was astonished to find the savings not demonstrated but merely asserted. Based on the cards the board has shown, no responsible fiscal officer would certify them.  Inevitable cost increases and likely revenue losses attendant to the plan are simply ignored. So substantial are these omissions one must consider the real possibility that the plan will cost rather than save money.

The plan has two components. One centralizes information technology and other mostly ministerial services. The plan imputes nearly half its savings to such efficiencies, but never accounts for positions shifted from campuses to the central office. Some of these changes are so mundane one asks why they weren’t made long ago. Are there really no central purchasing or financial information systems? What has the board been up to instead? And again, where exactly are the savings?

The plan’s second component does the real damage. By stripping top level management functions from the colleges and lodging them in  Ojakian’s office, it cuts the hearts and brains out of the colleges. Gone are each college’s presidents and provosts, to be replaced by Ojakian and new, no doubt highly paid administrators working under him in Hartford.

The product of a 2011 merger, the system has had no fewer than five presidents –three permanent, two interim– in six years. Two got axed after public uproars over financial extravagance. Given its dismal oversight record, one might expect the board’s first big reform would be of itself, but alas, no. As evidence of its continued dereliction one need look no further than the meager process and specious numbers employed here. Before it expands its reach, it should be made to demonstrate a firmer grasp of its present duties.

One can’t expect the board to do a better job running the new system than it did planning it. Ojakian spent a quarter century as an aide to Gov. Dannel Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. He is an earnest and able public servant. But he nabbed the top job despite having no prior experience in the field. He’d be well advised to spend another year in the system before seeking to dismantle it.

Ojakian was a key player in the first Malloy budget. It, too, emerged from a closed process and made faith-based claims of future savings. It sealed the fate of the Malloy administration, just as this proposal may seal the fate of our community colleges, and in so doing taught a stark lesson: without genuine transparency and broad public participation, democracy doesn’t work.

Community colleges are renowned for the speed with which they adjust to fast-changing needs of communities and students. Enrolling two thirds of all minority students in state higher education, they’ve delivered on America’s sacred promise of equal opportunity under constitutional law. With power hidden away in Hartford, could they possibly acquit themselves so well?

Our community colleges are the real jewels in the crown of our higher education system. Autonomy and scale are what give them their democratic character and make them invaluable. The landscape is littered with corpses of mergers that peddled phantom savings but delivered bigger, ever more insular bureaucracies. To let them be devoured on such flimsy evidence and logic would be a betrayal of the colleges themselves and the communities and the democracy they help sustain.

Bill Curry is the former Connecticut Comptroller and a former advisor to President Bill Clinton.

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