Mark Ojakian has been making plenty of headlines lately — just not the good kind.
The president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system first when he proposed an operational consolidation plan designed to save some $41 million a year. Although CSCU’s 12-member Board of Regents unanimously approved the measure, there was plenty of hue and cry about the loss of jobs involved — mostly back-office functions, though some wondered if faculty and other personnel could also be facing the axe.
The board has also approved an operational consolidation of CSCU’s 12 community colleges into one that will be centrally managed and “maintains the unique mission, geographic locations and local community connections.” Implementation will take place over the next two years and should save about $28 million per year, according to CSCU. Ojakian said that the consolidation will likely result in the selection of a single president to oversee the 12 campuses, though that has yet to be finalized.
In the meantime, on June 20 Ojakian announced that three community college presidents will assume dual roles effective July 1. Paul Brodie, president of Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, will receive an extra $19,150 – to also serve as president at Gateway Community College in New Haven; James Lombella, president of Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, will receive a $16,020 stipend to also serve as president at Tunxis Community College in Farmington; and Middlesex Community College’s Dean of Academic Affairs Steven Minkler will also serve as its president, receiving a $13,490 stipend.
The stipends are equal to about 10 percent of the three educators’ salaries, Ojakian said; filling those positions with new hires would have cost about $1.1 million in salaries and fringe benefits.
The stipends are expected to continue until the consolidation process is completed.
The moves are designed to close CSCU’s budget gap. The system has a projected budget deficit of $35 million for fiscal year 2018, which is predicted to increase to $57 million in fiscal 2019.
While Ojakian’s trademark listening tours of CSCU campuses have continued, they’ve been decidedly less pleasant affairs than in the past. He’s been greeted with vociferous challenges by some students and educators; the faculty at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain issued a vote of no confidence in the CSCU Board of Regents by a 39-10 majority.
“Most of the receptions were good,” Ojakian said of his most recent campus tour in the spring, “but there were some individuals who thought the integration of back-office functions would interfere with teaching and learning – which is the opposite of what it is designed to do.”
Ojakian maintains that everything he does is designed to fall under his “Students First” motto. That includes a two-year tuition hike approved earlier this year, under which state universities will see 4 percent increases — or an extra $40 annually per student — while community colleges will see increases of 2.5 percent, an extra $104 annually per student. The tuition increase is expected to generate about $14 million.
Ojakian said that the action allows students and families to correctly budget for the next two years. “I have always said that I will not balance our budget on the backs of our students, and I won’t. I have also said that I will not revisit tuition over the next two years, no matter what happens.”
He allowed, however, that the board certainly can.
With the state budget once again is bogged down in the legislature, “We’re in the same holding pattern as is every other function of government,” Ojakian said. “The current fiscal year ends on June 30 and if we have no budget by then, I will follow the instructions of the governor’s office. Whatever happens, we are ready to respond.”
“We have to look at all the options. My strong preference is not to close locations. That (closing) would of course disadvantage our students, and excluding any number of students is not what we’re about. We want to offer the same affordability and access to education that we always have.”