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Opponents of community college consolidation seek legislative intervention

Opponents of the plan to consolidate the state's 12 community colleges, called Students First and initiated in 2017, spoke Tuesday in favor of legislation that addresses some of their concerns.

One of the bills before the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee in a public hearing was H.B. 6403, which would require approval from the state House and Senate for the merger or closing of institutions within Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

A similar bill had a public hearing before the committee last year on Feb. 27, but with the legislature shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn't go anywhere. In 2019, the bill passed out of committee by a 22-0 vote but didn't make it to the floor.

"There have been so many questions, concerns, accreditation concerns and controversy about the consolidation and Student First plans," wrote Diba Khan-Bureau, a professor at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich. She added that "students are suffering the consequences of a bloated bureaucracy" and nonexperts are making curriculum decisions.

Ron Picard, professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College, said the consolidation will put an end to a "local, deeply personal educational experience." For example, Norwalk Community College professor Lois Aime noted last month that nuclear physics is embedded in the physics curriculum at Three Rivers because of Millstone, which isn't the case elsewhere.

Khan-Bureau, Picard and Aime are faculty senate presidents at their respective institutions. In May 2019, the faculty senate or staff organization at 10 of the 12 community colleges voted no confidence in then CSCU President Mark Ojakian, the Board of Regents and the Students First plan.

Sean Bradbury, senior director of government relations for CSCU, spoke against the bill. He said the decision to merge or close is not made lightly and is "often the last resort after all other viable solutions are explored or exhausted." He questioned what solutions the Board of Regents would have if the legislature struck down a merger.

Asked about concerns that central office has grown to the detriment of students, Bradbury said, "I think there's this misconception that money that goes to system office is money that is not going to students, and that's just patently untrue ... The overwhelming majority of that staff are there supporting the day-to-day operations of the colleges, so those are folks in IT, in human resources."

But Francis Coan, professor at Tunxis Community College, said the consolidation of back-office services has been a failure. He wrote that at the beginning of the semester, "hundreds of panicked, frustrated, and angry students" emailed and called IT because they weren't listed as enrolled in the right courses or couldn't access remote courses. He said faculty and staff don't know where to go with HR questions and some part-time faculty aren't being paid.

Bradbury also voiced concerns that this bill adds political considerations to something that historically has been apolitical, though Picard and others noted Board of Regents members are politically appointed.

Among 17 pieces of written testimony submitted on H.B. 6403, 16 were in favor; the only opposition came from Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Some of those supporting the bill also spoke in favor of H.B. 5545, which would require the Board of Regents to include the central office of CSCU in the itemization of its budget request. Bradbury said CSCU is "fine with" this.

Last week, opponents of Students First testified in favor of a bill requiring the Office of Higher Education to conduct a study relating to higher education issues in Connecticut.

Part of their recommended substitute language is that the study concern the efficacy of the Board of Regents and CSCU governance "from its inception in 2011 to the present with a particular emphasis on the consolidation plan referred to as 'Students First.'"

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the organization for which Sean Bradbury works and when votes of no confidence occurred.

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