October 18, 2017

Major consolidation pitched for CT community colleges

The governing board of the state's 12 community colleges on Thursday will be asked to advance a dramatic consolidation plan aimed at sharply reducing the number of administrators working at the schools over the next 20 months.

Mark Ojakian – the president of the state's community colleges, four regional state universities and online college – anticipates that he would be able to save $28 million a year by shedding college presidents, budget staff and other highly paid administrators at each institution and creating a centralized staff to run the public schools.

No campus would close under the plan.

Savings of such magnitude would be substantial for the community college system, whose budget is $468 million this year. It would come at a time when the state's fiscal problems are almost certain to lead to more budget reductions for the public colleges in the coming years. The size of the state's traditional college-aged population also is projected to drop steadily, likely affecting tuition revenue.

But Ojakian is also pitching the savings as a way to provide better services for students.

"The point behind this is for the benefit of students and to put resources into those services that will help the students succeed," Ojakian said Tuesday in unveiling the plan. "So instead of having 12 layers of administration and one-and-a-half academic advisors on each academic campus, how about less administration and more academic advisors?"

He is asking the Board of Regents for Higher Education to endorse the plan so he can move forward with the necessary next steps to fully implement the consolidation and win the approval of the new strategy from the schools' accrediting institution, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

If approved, the change would make the newly named Connecticut Community College the fifth largest in the country with more than 52,000 students.

Faculty members responded cautiously to the plan that they were just seeing for the first time Tuesday.

"The architecture of this was not performed by us and a lot of this was done without us seeing it before," said Judy Wallace, a professor of human anatomy and physiology at Middlesex Community College in Middletown. She is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Committee who served on the Community College Consolidation advisory team. "So I think it is a misconception to think that we had our hands on the creation of this. The creation of this was done by their own people."

That said, she and others were generally supportive of the broad goals outlined in the plan — saving money on administration to reinvest in services for students.

"Obviously saving money, no one is going to complain about that as long as the services for students are not impacted or improved. The devil is in the details," said Del Cummings, a science professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury and also a member of the advisory group. "What is out there is really not detailed enough to understand where the savings is going to come from."

"The cost savings and how that will occur has yet to be documented," said Wallace. "Will that happen? Theoretically yes. But I haven't seen any bookkeeping on that so I can't say that will happen."

Ojakian said it is too early in the process to outline all the positions that will be shed and what new positions will be created. But the goal is to significantly scale back the number of administrative staff.

Faculty may be wary because of previous unkept promises to shed administrative costs and reinvest savings in student services.

Ojakian, who became the leader of the college system in 2015, promised this time will be different.

"I'm going to keep my commitment," he said. "I don't want anybody else to have to have this conversation. This should have happened in 2011 – it didn't."

Aside from the savings, he emphasized his plan will have huge benefits for students. Namely, they will be able to more seamlessly take courses at the various schools. Currently, between 1 and 2 percent of the state's 56,000 community college students take courses at more than one school. Ideally, the same courses will be offered at different times to better accommodate the schedules of students who often have to juggle work, family and college.

Ojakian's plan centers on having common degrees offered across all 12 campuses, as well as some uniquely tailored ones.

Such a change may get a cool reception from faculty members. They have balked at such a proposal in the past, saying it has the potential to infringe on the academic independence of the various programs offered at the institutions.

Enabling so-called "swirling students" to take degree-credit courses at multiple campuses "could be really good for students," said Wallace. But, she added, having non-common curriculum has its benefits.

"Like anything else there are parts that are attractive and things that are not…. There are reasons you need programs to exist in many forms and flavors. It's enriching. But changing that: it's safe and it's predictable," she said.

Ojakian said he does not aim to take away those differences that enrich instruction. Decisions on which books and other materials to use will still be up to professors.

Asked why this move hadn't been done in the past, Michael Rooke, the president of Northwest Community College and the point-person for crafting the plan for Ojakian, had this to say: "Because I don't think anyone had the bold conviction to do it."

The Board of Regents is not scheduled to vote on the idea until December.

Aside from convincing faculty, students and the public that this is the right approach, Ojakian's proposal also faces some bureaucratic obstacles. By reorganizing the schools into one community college, the plan will need to win approval from the accrediting agency. Ojakian and Rooke said the consolidation, if successful, would be unprecedented.

"Listen this is not an easy undertaking. Because we understand change of this size is difficult," said Ojakian. "But what we want to be able to do is set up a community college system that is sustainable into the future. Listen, even if we didn't have the severe financial challenges, this makes sense."

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