Cutting overhead to save community colleges

It’s not easy to reform a bureaucracy.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, is learning that lesson as he pushes forward with a plan to consolidate administrative services for state community colleges and universities. Ojakian contends the changes could save $41 million annually. He calls the initiative “Students First,” suggesting that less money spent on administration will ease the burden placed on students through tuition costs and prevent an erosion of academic offerings.

Whether the CSCU would really save that much is questionable. Ojakian’s office still has to work out many of the details. Without details it is tough to come up with hard numbers.

“These are strategies. It’s not a final plan,” the president told the Board of Regents for Higher Education back on April 6, when it voted to endorse that strategy.

The premise behind the proposal is well grounded. Providing and paying for administrations to operate each of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges is expensive. CSCU should be able to find savings by consolidating some of those administrative functions to serve the colleges collectively.

This is the continuation of a process that began with the merger of the 12 community colleges, the online Charter Oak College, and the four regional state universities — Central, Eastern, Western and Southern Connecticut — under the direction of the regents and a president. Until then the 17 institutions operated autonomously.

In its first few years, however, the change of governance has not resulted in the efficiency savings envisioned when the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pushed the merger forward.

At the same meeting at which the regents endorsed the plan to consolidate administrative functions, they also voted to increase tuition by 4 percent at the four regional state universities, and by 2.5 percent at the community colleges, in each of the next two years.

Ojakian was the deputy secretary of state at the Office of Policy and Management in 2011 when Malloy was seeking savings through various agency consolidations and labor concessions. In 2012 he became Malloy’s chief of staff.

When Ojakian moved in 2015 from the governor’s office to head the community college and university system, it appeared to be a move toward achieving the savings originally envisioned by the merger. The CSCU system does not include the University of Connecticut, which is independent and governed by its own board of trustees.

Ojakian’s office contends that an operational consolidation of administrative services for the dozen community college campuses could save $28 million annually. Another $13 million in savings would come from combining information technology, human services and purchasing across all the community colleges and universities. Cost savings would result from both reductions in the number of administrators and due to economies of scale. Ojakian concludes management could be reduced by about 20 percent.

This is preferable to the other obvious option — reducing the number of community colleges. In hindsight, perhaps a dozen community colleges are too many for a relatively small state. But the colleges are here, busy, and the communities in which they are located dependent on them. Making higher education convenient and affordable is a good thing. So if Ojakian and the regents can squeeze out savings without any closings, all the better.

Business as usual was not an option, according to the CSCU president.

“Since becoming President, it has become clear to me and our Board of Regents that the current structure of our system is not viable in the long term,” Ojakian wrote in an open letter to students and faculty.

As the legislature deals with the state’s fiscal problems, it has cut state support for the CSCU system by 12.5 percent since 2015, down to providing $565.5 million in the current fiscal year toward the system’s $1.2 billion in total operating costs.

The plan is getting some push back. The CSCU Faculty Advisory Committee has voiced legitimate criticism that Ojakian rushed the strategic plan to the regents without specifics and absent of faculty input. They want to be part of the process and they should be.

There are also fears of the community colleges losing the independence that allows them to meet the individual needs of their communities. To this end, Ojakian is conducting a “listening tour” at all 17 campuses, including April 26, at 1 p.m., at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich.

Yet if successful, this initiative could provide the fiscal stability necessary to sustain the CSCU system for years to come. For that reason, it is deserving of support.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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