Put students first: Close the CSCU system, disband the Board of Regents

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The “Students First” plan proposed by the CSCU Board of Regents, intended to save $28 million by consolidating the state’s 12 community colleges, has engendered frustration among system faculty due to the lack of visible research or analysis proving that the plan will realize the projected savings.

Faculty, therefore, were taken by surprise when a recent CT Mirror article reported that the accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, had given feedback on a draft plan for the Students First initiative submitted to it by the Board of Regents.

BOR President Mark Ojakian has maintained the pretense of being inclusive, recruiting faculty to serve on “implementation committees” and inviting their attendance at “town halls,” in addition to the formation of a Consolidation Committee composed of faculty and college administrators.  However, faculty system-wide, even on the latter, had been left in the dark, even about the existence of the plan.  Notably, the NEASC response to the supposedly more detailed plan echoes the latter’s (pre-plan) complaint about the lack of specifics, which, again, the BOR apparently failed or was unable to provide.

The BOR’s blundering, and the communicative dysfunction between it and the great majority of system personnel, those who would be most affected by a plan about which they have been told nothing, is typical of the breathtaking incompetence that has characterized the CSCU system of governance since its founding.

While centralization and consolidation may sound efficient, they almost invariably generate wasteful, duplicative, paralyzing bureaucracies. The original consolidation of the four state universities and 12 community colleges into one CSCU system in 2011 has fostered grotesque administrative bloat at the system’s head office, which now employs roughly 150 staff and commands an annual operating budget of about $40 million. Yet the system office does not teach a single student, does not do any recognizable work, and actually interferes with the administration of the constituent schools, stalling initiatives by overlaying them with an additional layer of approvals.

In the 1990s, the CSU System office had about eight staffers occupying a modest suite of offices on the first floor of Central Connecticut State University’s Barnard Hall.  It did not, and could not, exercise any real supervision over the CSU campuses. Thus, these four schools evolved as autonomous regional institutions, and to subject them, or the community colleges, to centralized control, pulling from them components vital to their internal processes, whether “student-facing” or “back-office,” would dismantle them in order to create an administrative Frankenstein’s monster.  Even now, the CSCU system has become an increasingly top-heavy, bloated parasite, destroying its host to feed itself, a swelling head surmounting a shrinking body.

In its six years, the CSCU system has an uninterrupted, well-documented record of failure and waste. The centralized authority has done nothing right, as was predictable, since the BOR collectively has virtually no training or experience in higher education administration.  It is universally unpopular among its constituents, its draconian contract proposals generating a near-mutiny among faculty at the four state universities in 2015.

Given this dismal performance record, is there any possibility that the Board of Regents headed by Mr. Ojakian can carry off a cumbersome, poorly-researched cost-savings plan involving complex operations when it has not even proven that it can carry out simple ones? It is far more likely that it will cost money.

If students come first, shouldn’t the campus that doesn’t teach a single student be eliminated first?  The obstacle facing this common-sense solution is that the Board of Regents and attendant system office are an entrenched power structure exclusively riveted on self-perpetuation.

The BOR’s major top-down initiatives have focused on homogenizing the colleges and universities, thereby necessitating the strengthening of its own authority. For instance, the one-size-fits-all, across-the-board, 120-credit rule and the system-wide common calendar have consumed hundreds of man-hours on the local level as faculty have been forced into made-up work adapting local practices to fit the Procrustean bed.  The BOR has subtracted value, as it has created otherwise unnecessary busywork solely to turn all the colleges and universities into a bleakly homogeneous mega-university.

The “Students First” initiative is a piece of false advertising that deceives by equating itself with a platitude with which nobody would dare disagree.  But it is really a “System Office First” or even “Mark Ojakian First” initiative, because this cumbersome strategy guarantees preservation of the power structure on which Mr. Ojakian’s bountiful salary relies.

This is curing the disease by inflicting another dose of the disease, responding, with more centralization, to the failed centralization that is largely the cause of the system’s fiscal crisis. The idea of removing and consolidating functions now undertaken on the local level is fantasy, as one central staff member cannot do the jobs of the 16 or 17 being replaced, and staff subtracted from the constituent institutions will, out of necessity, be added back into the system office, by design rendering the member institutions dysfunctional without it. They will be dismembered, losing the unique sense of regional identity and configuration of specialties that inspire the loyalty of their faculty and students.

And speaking of the students, who often carry two or even three jobs to pay for school, they will again face “tuition” hikes to pay for swollen administrator salaries, not tuition.  It is telling that the CSCU authorities have even floated the idea of closing one of the community colleges rather than the system office.  How is this putting students first?

Consolidation is the problem, not the solution, so the best and simplest chance of effecting the necessary savings is to disband the Board of Regents, close the system office, and let the constituent colleges and universities revert to autonomous status, thereby, in one stroke, realizing an annual savings of roughly $40 million per year.  Independence will give the schools incentives to realize cost efficiency themselves.

Paul A. Karpuk is a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and was Vice-President of the CCSU Faculty Senate 2015-2017.

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