A fresh start: Rethinking the future of Connecticut’s community colleges

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

Now that the election is over and we have new leadership in the state, this is an ideal time to think in fresh ways about community colleges in Connecticut.

As we know, the Board of Regents is currently in the process of dismantling the community college system, replacing campus leadership with temporary “CEOs” and regional presidents, and contending against all evidence — and decades of experience across the nation — that community colleges don’t need presidents.

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian’s initial proposal to consolidate the 12 community colleges was bluntly rejected by our regional accrediting agency, The New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). The chief feature of this plan is the removal of all administrative authority from community college campuses in favor of an expensive, unwieldy, multi-layered state bureaucracy.

This ill-conceived plan will mire the administration of community colleges in bureaucratic delay, red tape, and rigidity for years to come. The plan might be more accurately called “Bureaucracy First” rather than “Students First.”

Connecticut’s community colleges are incredibly vibrant and important state institutions, and they will need to play a central role in any kind of economic recovery plan for the state. These institutions are engines of prosperity and hope in our communities.

There is nothing we can do that will have a greater impact on Connecticut’s economy or our long-term prospects than strengthening our community colleges and our state universities. Not tax cuts, not deregulation, not free enterprise zones. Our new leadership must look for ways to strengthen these institutions, not weaken or dismantle them.

As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz note in their landmark book about education, economic development, and democracy, The Race Between Education and Technology, public investment in higher education since the birth of our nation has produced robust economic growth for hundreds of years:

“Human capital, embodied in one’s people, is the most fundamental part of the wealth of nations. Other inputs, such as natural resources and financial capital, can be acquired at world prices in global markets, but the efficiency of one’s labor force rarely can be.”

As Goldin and Katz note, higher education makes our labor force more efficient, helps citizens engage change productively, and drives innovation, creativity, and the development of new inventions, technologies, and businesses.

We need a leadership structure that will serve and defend our public higher education institutions, not shackle them to a centralized command center in Hartford.

Here are my recommendations:

1.I am respectfully calling for governor-elect Ned Lamont to give community colleges back their autonomy and their full-time on-campus presidents (not presidents shared by  three to five other campuses).

Removing community college presidents is going to be very expensive for the state.

As readers may know, state funding models for higher education have changed dramatically in recent decades. Most states, like Connecticut, have cut funding to higher education significantly over the last 20 years. College presidents across the nation now routinely engage in fundraising efforts — as an integral part of their role as college leaders—in order to offset these cuts in state support.

At my home institution, Manchester Community College, for example, our former president presided over fundraising drives that raised more than $15 million dollars for the college over her 10 years of service.

This net gain certainly dwarfs anything we might “save” by replacing this individual with a “CEO” or regional president — a change in leadership structure that many people both inside and outside of higher education find baffling.

The bulk of this donated money goes directly to student scholarships or is used to support initiatives and program enhancements that improve student learning and retention. This money also funds regional workforce prerequisites that are usually left unfunded by the state.

Without local presidents with the full authority to represent individual campuses, community colleges will lack the leadership, leverage, and credibility to conduct large-scale fundraising efforts in their communities. This will weaken every community college in the state. What we might save by eliminating full-time on-campus community college presidents will be lost many times over in declines in donation revenue and community engagement.

2.  I am respectfully calling for the new governor to allow community colleges to do what they do best—serve their local communities.

As leaders in the business community now routinely acknowledge, and as Adam Bryant documents in his book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, flexibility, agility, and responsiveness to change are essential characteristics of effective leadership, especially in turbulent times like ours.

Centralizing all academic and administrative decision-making will exponentially increase the time, process, and mechanics of creating innovation and realizing change. New ideas and programs that educators on a campus might be interested in pursuing would now need to be reviewed through additional layers of bureaucracy before they could be enacted.

The ability to be nimble and responsive to local communities and local businesses—something community colleges have always done exceedingly well — will be compromised. Sometimes we need “just in time” solutions for local problems and needs. Autonomy and independence allow individual community colleges to make these important decisions in a timely manner and to act quickly in response to local needs.

Each individual community college draws on decades of history and relationships in individual communities that a central office would know nothing about.

This is one of the great strengths of our current system. Dismantling it would be a terrible mistake, and it would be very costly.

3.  I am respectfully calling for the new governor to restructure the Board of Regents or replace it with an alternative governing body that is more responsive to the institutions that educate rather than to a centralized system office.

It is now obvious that Gov. Dannel Malloy’s experiment of merging the community colleges with the state universities in 2011 under the Board of Regents has been a costly failure.

The current system has produced years of chaos, confusion, bad blood, wasted time and effort, numerous votes of “no confidence,” a revolving door of presidents, and declining morale among faculty and staff. This must end.

There are a number of credible options for moving forward that I urge the new state leadership to consider carefully.

One idea popular now is to disband the Board of Regents. Our new leadership may wish to consider returning to the system we had before 2011, which ran our state colleges and universities very effectively for decades.

Another option is to rethink and restructure the relationship between the governing board and each of our 17 institutions. The current model, which has the Board of Regents answering primarily to the system office, rather than to the institutions that actually educate, has led to confusion and chaos, along with repeated, dysfunctional efforts by the system office to expand its sphere of control.

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is currently led by Mark Ojakian, a former Chief of Staff for Gov. Malloy. Unfortunately, President Ojakian has no experience with higher education as a teacher, dean, or college president.

This is obviously not the best model for a group leading our state’s universities and community colleges. There should be educators at the helm of any higher education leadership group in this state. These individuals should have a deep commitment to higher education, long experience in the classroom, and should know the colleges in this state very well from the inside out. Any kind of new leadership structure should include a significant number of faculty and staff from our state colleges and universities.

A group led by educators would certainly be able to make thoughtful recommendations for addressing our budgetary challenges in ways that would strengthen our institutions—not weaken, dismantle, or close them.

It is also time to stop borrowing bad ideas from others states and to start developing Connecticut solutions to Connecticut challenges using Connecticut expertise. Let’s have other states looking to us for innovative and exemplary approaches to building a robust and vital higher education system.

4. Overall, I am respectfully calling for a fresh approach to managing higher education in Connecticut, one informed by respect for faculty and staff, a commitment to shared governance and leadership, and a sense of common purpose and responsibility.

Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College and is the author of a recent book about community colleges, Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). His new book, 11 Teachers Teaching: Two-Year College Perspectives, will be published in 2019.


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