A few months ago, the Connecticut Mirror afforded me the opportunity to be one of the first critics to “come out” on the misguided initiative called “Students First” led by Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, and his benevolent Board of Regents. May the good Lord afford them some compassion for the wasted time we all had to invest on this. It has drained many of us. I could have retrieved many more Puerto Rican students displaced from Hurricane Maria if I was not so distracted by this bad mix of ideas and pure scorn towards the system I have been part of for the last 28 years.
The president of the CSCU system has called the New England Association Accreditation of School and Colleges’ rejection to his misguided proposal a “devastating” one. With declining enrollments in the community colleges, bad ideas and a flawed consolidation plan, it has been, as Queen Elizabeth once said, an “Annus Horriblis” for Ojakian and many of our wobbly Trustees. It also casts a dark shadow for the embattled image of Gov. Dannel Malloy. As a true liberal Democrat, this plan brought pain and sorrow for me from day one. A president of a system should be a builder, not a demolition man.
Sadly this falls on the lap of the governor and the ego and anger that follow him every day wherever he goes. It is a systemic flaw I see among many of his inner sanctum who perceive they are above the “common folk.” He appointed a Trump style “apprentice” to lead one of the jewels of Connecticut, the CSCU system. Academics, and even those who join the administrative ranks, go through a process of learning and growth that allow them to understand the nuances of academia and empowerment it can give people. Former President William Cibes was a role model for all times.
I cannot count how many underprivileged sons and daughters of the working class I have taught during my years at Central Connecticut State University. I am proud to say that my colleagues and I have made a difference in their lives. They tell us so. When I first arrived at CCSU in a shining red BMW given to me by my parents as a graduation present, I felt guilty and out of place. Soon I realized that I was to be teaching kids who held from one to three jobs to pay for their schooling. They come from the very inner fabric of Connecticut’s working class. The make-up of the student body has not changed much through the decades. They are earthy, hard-working and as smart as they come. I love them all. They are the future of the Constitution State, if we are going to have one.
The faculty of CCSU and the system as a whole, my colleagues, have worked hard during this past year to protect the future of our students, empower them and give them a voice. We stand by the cornerstone principle of academia: shared governance. “Student First” would have been a sham. Actually, it should have been better defined as “Students Last.” When I was young and immature, I would have called them the “Forces of Evil.” Now that I have matured and ready to enter the silver age, I will just call these administrators and politicians misguided souls. I am not one to judge, but they should seek reconciliation, try to heal the fractures and bring us functionality and peace.
What is next? There will be space for some level of mending and coming to terms with the values that we stand for. Like any family does, we must balance our checking account and learn to leave within our means. We have failed to do so.
I ask President Ojakian to engage in a process of dialogue with those constituents he is supposed to represent. A dear friend keeps saying: Mark is a good man. I believe so as well. That said, he may consider going, and enjoying the retirement benefits he has worked so hard for. It may be the most gracious solution for all.
The letter from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges is clear: the proposal was an unrealistic plan filled with make believe figures and pseudo facts. It was dead on arrival. The last sacraments were given by the Board of Regents long before they shipped the failing body to NEASC. The faculty, administrative staff and students are willing to work together with the current and next administration of the CSCU system. Sadly, we are afraid that Woodland Street has become a repository for lame ducks.
Wish us good luck and may we protect our students from the shortsighted politicians of the world.
Serafín Méndez-Mendez is a Professor of Communication at Central Connecticut State University and involved in many community initiatives in Hartford.