Mark Ojakian’s “Students First” plan to consolidate the 12 community colleges in the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU) into one system may be down but — like the CSCU president himself — is evidently far from out.
“I was very surprised” by accrediting agency the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ (NEASC) decision not to implement the plan in late April, Ojakian said. “And I’ve been very vocal in my disappointment.”
Ojakian said that, contrary to most news reports, NEASC did not “reject” Students First: “What happened was they received our report and chose not to act upon it.”
Whatever the phraseology, the fact remains that the NEASC did not pass the plan, which Ojakian continues to maintain would save nearly $28 million a year in administrative costs by eliminating some 200 administrative positions and combining curricula for more than 200 degree programs at the 12 community colleges, which include Norwalk Community College and Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.
In a letter to the CSCU announcing its decision, David Angel, chair of the NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, wrote that the plan wasn’t “just a substantive change” but would create an entirely new college system that would require a thorough vetting process, adding that it did not believe the vast changes involved could be accomplished by CSCU’s proposed 2019.
“Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment is too high to approve the proposed Community College of Connecticut as a candidate for accreditation based on this proposal,” Angel wrote.
The CSCU plan now, Ojakian said, is to “assess where we were and decide what should be done in a different manner. Our academic planning was maybe a little too aggressive.”
He said he intends to propose “some variation” of Students First to the CSCU Board of Regents in June, with an eye toward submitting a revised proposal to NEASC. “I still think the model makes sense,” Ojakian said, “if we’re really going to be serious about dealing with the new fiscal reality of Connecticut and our reduced funding levels.”
One possible path forward is to phase in the changes outlined in Students First over a longer period of time, he said. “There are some things we can do with administrative integration sooner rather than later. I plan to develop a timeline so that I can present some reasonable options to my board.
“My goal is still to have one single accredited institution,” he added.
Although the General Assembly added $16.2 million to help the system cover fringe benefit costs at community colleges in the fiscal year that begins July 1, uncertainty moving forward still mandates the CSCU act to save itself — thereby helping to serve its students, said Ojakian, who estimates that without consolidation the community colleges face a cumulative $144 million deficit by Fiscal Year 2021.
He insisted that Students First is hardly a unique proposition, pointing to the Lone Star College System in Texas — which consists of a number of campuses with a total enrollment of some 95,000 students — as an example.
In the meantime, the NEASC is hardly the only group to question the wisdom behind Students First. The Connecticut State University Faculty Leadership Group — which includes faculty leaders from the four Connecticut state universities — delivered a statement to the Board of Regents at its May 10 general meeting describing the rejection of Students First as “the latest in a series of failures since Connecticut’s Higher Education governance structure was changed in 2011.”
The consolidation plan “was written in haste and in secret by a small cadre of state bureaucrats, with no opportunity for public review, comment or deliberation,” the statement continued.
“I believe that we have been very inclusive and communicative,” Ojakian said. He added that he was unimpressed by such criticism, noting that the state universities — including Danbury’s Western Connecticut State — “would not be affected at all by a community college consolidation.” In addition, he said, members of the faculty group “have a long history of opposition to (CSCU) leaders, not just of the system.”
Indeed, one of the Faculty Leadership Council’s complaints was that CSCU has had “a revolving door of presidents — four in less than eight years.” Ojakian has held the post since 2015.
The CSCU head also acknowledged that Students First has received some vocal pushback from community college faculty “who don’t want things to change.”
There have also been calls for him to resign. On April 30 the Faculty Senate at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain called for Ojakian to step down by an almost unanimous vote.
“I’m not resigning,” he declared. “I have the full support of my board and our Student Advisory Committee, which supports me and Students First. I’m a lot tougher than I look.”
As if to back up that last point, he added: “I invite everyone with something constructive to offer to the table to contribute to our process. But I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people who are just criticizing from the sidelines.”