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‘Students First’ or Obfuscation Inc.?

In 2011, a Board of Regents for Public Higher Education (BOR) was created to supposedly save money through centralization of functions and to assure smooth student transition from community colleges to universities. But students were deceived about the transfer process as smooth transfers can be achieved without this centralized boondoggle.

Since 2011, after five presidents, all there is to show is nearly quarter billion taxpayer dollars wasted on a bloated central bureaucracy with 150 employees at an annual cost of $35 million, and several failed proposals to merge the community colleges and the state universities with reassuring names such asTransform 2020, Go Back to Get Ahead, and the current plan, Students First.

Highly paid BOR president, Mark Ojakian, whose total compensation package well exceeds $250,000 a year, is behind the latest plan to consolidate the state universities and community colleges and purportedly save $28 million annually (the claimed savings was $41 million a few months ago – a moving target).  The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the accrediting agency, expressed doubt about the claimed savings the current proposal promises.

Moreover, despite the 2011 legislative directive creating the Board of Regents to distinguish between the distinct roles of the community colleges and the state universities these plans never consider the role of community colleges as local institutions with local civic support.

“Students First,” developed with little or no faculty or regional input, centralizes needed local functions, continues unchecked growth of the central office, uses undemocratic approval procedures, and is harmful to local campuses.  Many suggest that it is a back door to close community colleges – a move that was strongly opposed by the public the last time the BOR tried this scheme.

A better solution? Eliminate the Board of Regents and its enormous bloated administrative budget that does not help students. Reinstate the Board of Trustees for Community Colleges and State Universities and Chancellors for the community colleges and the state university system.

A community college leader told me recently:

Unfortunately, I think “Students First” is a very bad proposal.  I think there is room for certain types of administrative consolidation through the more effective use of technology but do not believe a “single college” will serve students, communities, or business and industry very effectively.  The current proposal is similar to the structure of another state system,  which many in the community college movement believe is an underperforming system and non-responsive to the differences in regional educational needs across the state.

The simple idea of creating a single statewide curriculum will sound like a cost effective and increased efficiency proposal but it will actually stifle creativity and innovation and keep Connecticut further behind in developing and implementing cutting edge relevant curriculum and programs to meet the educational needs for tomorrow’s jobs.  (Emphasis added).

The centralized bureaucracy necessary to manage and administer a twelve-campus system will ultimately not produce the savings reported and will certainly not be responsive to local and regional educational and training needs, cumbersome, slow to react, and fail to have a vision for anything other than what is driven by the thinking in Hartford.  The heart of the community college is its relationship to its community not to the government bureaucracy headquartered in Hartford. (Emphasis added).

Former state agricultural commissioner and state representative and long-time board member at the Northwestern Connecticut Community College Foundation, F. Philip Prelli noted the benefits lost from consolidating power far removed if not absent from local conditions. His summation simply stated is, “Let us not take the ‘community’ out of community college.”

Ojakian warns that his plan must be adopted quickly. Too many questions are already being raised for his comfort. Contact your state representative and demand a legislative hearing so we get a thorough analysis of this latest questionable plan.

Charlene LaVoie is the community lawyer in Winsted.

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