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May 2, 2017

Regionalization, fewer college presidents, to be new face of state university system

Regionalization, fewer college presidents, and consolidated management will be the new face of the state university system starting July 1, according to Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian.

Ojakian, who is taking his plans for change on a whistle-stop tour throughout the state sat Thursday with the Journal Inquirer to lay out his ideas for saving the failing system of four universities, 12 community colleges, and one online college.

The CSCU Board of Regents approved Ojakian’s preliminary proposal to consolidate the community colleges’ administrations into a single office — a move that he said won’t affect student services — in order to save $41 million.

The “strategy” has come under fire from many corners, particularly among faculty and staff who fear job loss, which is a distinct possibility. Advocates for affordable higher education also are concerned that some far-flung campuses might close, forcing low-income students that rely on public transportation to travel farther to attend classes.

Ojakian said he doesn’t mind the controversy or angry crowds that have greeted him in town hall-style meetings at various campuses, because invariably, good suggestions for cost-saving measures are often made.

And ideas are needed.

Depending on the state budget, the system is now facing a $38 million to $93 million deficit, he said last week, so “what’s going to give?”

Roughly 60 percent of community college funding comes from the state, which as of Friday was facing a $4.7 billion deficit over the next two years. The continued loss of state funds can’t be filled solely with tuition hikes, he said.

Right now, many of the smaller community colleges have only one month of reserves set aside to pay the bills, when it should be more like six, he added.

“It’s concerning,” Ojakian said, noting that campus life can sometimes be insulated with many unaware of the current fiscal reality. “I think there’s been efforts to trim services and cut here and there, but given the situation that we’re in, I don’t think we can avoid having conversations about what does it mean to really be a system?”

The 17 institutions were cobbled into the Connecticut State College and University system in 2011, and in recent years they’ve seen a rapid turnover of ineffectual leadership, he said.

Ojakian said creating a central administration office would free up about $28 million, while another $13 million would be saved by concentrating such tasks as purchasing, financial aid processing, and human resources.

Local autonomy and campus uniqueness should be respected, but the system must be condensed in areas where it makes sense, he said.

The planning process will be headed by Northwestern Community College President Michael Rooke, who’ll lead a team of deans and administrators from campuses throughout the system to devise a strategy that can be implemented in two stages, Ojakian said.

Some community colleges will lose their presidents, but not in the first stage, he said.

“You don’t need a president on each individual campus in a state the size of Connecticut,” he said, adding that he recently filled two vacant seats left open by retirements with existing presidents within the same region assuming their duties.

It won’t be possible to accomplish all downsizing of presidential posts through attrition, he said, but it certainly makes sense to consolidate the jobs, particularly where many of the campuses are a distance of only 10 or 15 miles.

The alternative to close a small community college would save $25 million up-front, he said, but that quick, one-time solution doesn’t solve the long-term problems it would impose on students.

As a result, over 400 to 450 jobs will either be consolidated or lost over the next two years, he said. Roughly 95 percent of the 11,000 staffers now in the system belong to a union.

“We’ll have to deal with collective bargaining units if it comes to layoffs, which is my last choice,” he said. “I’d like to achieve workforce reductions through retirements or attrition.”

Layoffs may have to be part of the solution, however, he said, as payroll and benefits account for 80 percent of the system’s $1.2 billion total operating budget.

Hiring has been frozen and raises for managers were canceled in 2015 when staff last received a 3.5 percent pay increase.

Salaries range from the low end of $40,000 for clerical work to upward of $325,000 for a president who has been in office for a long time.

Elsa M. Nunez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University in Windham, is tops, drawing a salary and benefits package of $490,574.98 in 2016, according to state figures.

That current status can’t continue unchallenged, Ojakian said, adding that he is also reaching out for help from the business community and manufacturers who rely on the system for an educated workforce.

“My job is to push the envelope,” Ojakian said. “We should be changing the way we do business.”

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