Now that NEASC has confirmed what most of us already knew —that the Board of Regents’ Students First proposal to consolidate the state’s community colleges was a very bad idea —we are now left with the challenge of what to do next.
NEASC clearly did the right thing —saving the state of Connecticut from a deeply flawed plan that was not good for the state, not good for students, and not good for community colleges. Characterizing the plan as not “realistic,” as NEASC did, is putting it kindly.
There were many things that were deeply troubling about this proposal and the way it was developed and promoted. Two stand out as particularly egregious.
First, there was no shared leadership or even acknowledgement that we should be working together to address our fiscal challenges. The BOR developed their Students First strategy with no input from community college presidents, no input from faculty and staff, and no input from anyone outside the closed circle of the system office. Although President Mark Ojakian held a few meetings around the state to discuss this plan, those meetings were to inform us about what had already been decided — not to gather input or additional ideas.
Most recent highly-regarded books about leadership tell us this is a bad practice. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People both identify collaboration, dialog-based problem solving, and teamwork as essential for effective leadership.
Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. about Pixar, which Forbes called “one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership,” theorizes a leadership model that stands in stark contrast to the BOR:
“If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.”
“It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.”
Here is a list of my recommendations for getting more ideas and more creative thinking on the table as we seek to address our fiscal challenges:
• Announce that for the next three months the BOR is conducting a listening tour—looking for ideas and creative thinking about how to address our budgetary shortfall for the state’s community colleges. In addition to scheduling town-hall meetings around the state, individuals can be invited to send ideas in via e-mail, in person, or through a special website set up for this purpose.
• Empower our 12 community college presidents to spend the next three months meeting together to collaboratively develop a plan and a list of recommendations for cost savings. This group of professionals is ideally suited to help us find ways to work within new budgetary limitations.
• Employing a “team of rivals” approach modeled after Lincoln’s cabinet, invite the group of CSCU faculty and staff that submitted the formal letter with NEASC opposing the consolidation plan to offer their suggestions for moving forward (I was one of 65 faculty and staff who signed this letter). This group has already demonstrated that they are deeply knowledgeable about this issue and committed to helping the state find a way to resolve it. Why not invite them to submit their ideas and recommendations?
• Perhaps most promising of all is the Connecticut Community College Round Table, which also endorsed this letter opposing the Students First plan. This group is made up of retired Connecticut community college chancellors, presidents, and personnel, including former Chancellors Marc Herzog and Andrew McKirdy, the Reverend David L. Cannon (former long-term Chair of the Community College Board of Trustees), and Barbara Douglas, President Emerita, Northwestern Connecticut Community College. This distinguished group, which has maybe 400 years of combined experience with community colleges in Connecticut, should immediately be invited by the BOR to produce a plan to address our fiscal shortcomings.
Second, the BOR framed their plan as an “either/or” proposition with only two options—accept our plan or we begin closing community colleges immediately. In effect, this gave us only one option. President Ojakian consistently used the threat of closures to prevent discussion of other ideas or options.
I would like to respectfully suggest that this either/or formulation is simplistic, dangerous, and counterproductive. As educator Ken Robinson has suggested, “The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges.”
Here is my list of options we might consider, offered with the understanding that there will be many more additional good ideas forthcoming once we invite feedback:
• We shouldn’t be talking about closing community colleges, even as a last resort. I am very familiar with the so-called “smaller” community colleges in the northwest, north central, and the eastern parts of the state. These colleges are not “small” to the people in their service areas. Each of them plays a vitally important role in their communities, especially for young men and women thinking about their futures. We need to keep all 12 colleges open. They are engines of productively and prosperity in our state.
• There is surely a way that community colleges might share some administrative duties through partnerships among local sister institutions. There may even be a way to regionalize some functions among nearby colleges. These plans, however, must be developed carefully and collaboratively, with full participation of all stake-holders at each institution.
• There may be a way to save money and cut costs in less obvious ways as well. For example, three campuses in our system are currently partnering with GE, Sunlight Solar Energy, and CT Green Bank to install solar systems (Middlesex, Manchester, and SCSU) to reduce energy consumption and decrease operating expenses on their campuses. It is estimated that the state will save $10 million within the first 20 years of this initiative. With rising energy costs, perhaps a program to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint would be one step toward addressing our budgetary shortfall. We should be providing leadership in this area anyway. Perhaps we should set a goal of a zero carbon footprint on all state campuses by 2022.
• The System Office operating expenses run between $35 to $40 million dollars a year, more than several of the smaller campuses. We should scale back on system office expenditures significantly.
Given how polarized and divided our nation is at the moment, there is a great need to model collaborative, research-based, creative problem solving for the citizens in the state. Shouldn’t the group that oversees higher education in Connecticut be modeling these kinds of effective leadership practices — in effect, teaching? Leading by example?
Let’s embrace effective leadership strategies as we engage this important work.
Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College and is the author of a new book about community colleges, Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).