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Community college professors continue opposition to consolidation

The “Reluctant Warriors” are not giving up their battle to prevent, or at least influence, the consolidation of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges.

Several professors from different teaching unions, unified under the “Reluctant Warriors” tag, including Diba Khan-Bureau, professor and program coordinator of environmental engineering technology at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, view the merger as a threat to academic freedom for professors and students.

The unions feel they’ve been ignored when offering ideas on how to align the curriculum.

While professors believe there’s still hope to defeat the merger, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities anticipates it will be completed — marked by the launch of Connecticut State Community College — for the fall 2023 semester. The New England Commission of Higher Education, or NECHE, the accrediting body for community colleges in the Northeast, wrote to the CSCU in June “and noted that we have made significant progress toward accreditation as a single college ...."

State Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, calls himself a “merger skeptic.” He said the greatest hurdle to the consolidation is the “enormous amount of work that has to be accomplished in order to take the program offerings of 12 separately accredited community colleges and put them in a single course catalog for one community college.”

“There must be broad support among the faculty about the academic changes that need to be implemented prior to successfully integrating a single institution,” he said. “That’s where the challenge has been for the administration of the community colleges. I think they have a clear vision of what they want to see, but it’s also clear to many of us at the state Capitol that they haven’t achieved that broad consensus that’s required to work well.”

On July 19, Lois Aimé, the director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College, and her colleagues sent a letter to the NECHE, the state Board of Regents, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities president and the interim Connecticut State Community College president detailing the many ways in which they believe the merger will affect services and academic integrity.

Last week, Aimé said the system needs to get professors involved in discussing curriculum issues, but “they don’t want to talk to us.”

Francis Coan, a professor of history at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, said it’s his 31st year teaching and he loves his job, but he’s concerned about maintaining control over what he teaches.

“In theory we still control the curriculum on our campuses, but I’m talking about the curriculum for this new college that they’re building. We clearly have no role in writing that whatsoever,” he said. “Whatever this thing is, it will not be a college, it will be something else. What it’ll be is a third-rate training facility for the students who end up going, who are disproportionately poor and of color. They’re not going to get a college education. And that is a crime against those students.”

CSCU Director of Communications Leigh Appleby disputed claims about a loss of control, noting faculty input on curriculum is "a core higher educational tenet and a requirement of our accreditation." What will change, he said, is that a single institution's curriculum must be aligned across the college.

"Under the current system, the lack of alignment means that core courses in a major may differ by campus, so students who start a major on one campus and look to move to another campus within the system — something that happens frequently — often have to take additional courses in order to satisfy differing curricula between campuses," he wrote. "It's a huge and arbitrary barrier for students, and we're working to change it. The work to align curriculum is, of course, driven by faculty."

Three Rivers becomes a 'branch campus'

Seth Freeman, a professor of computer information systems at Capital Community College in Hartford and president of the 4Cs, the community college union, believes once the consolidation is finished, the Connecticut State Community College will have too much power, and that what are now community colleges will in effect become branches of a centralized administrative body. Opponents say community colleges will lose their local flavor and no longer be beholden to the communities the schools serve.

Khan-Bureau and Aimé warned about the effect of the merger on Three Rivers.

Aimé said the merger would cause Norwich to in effect lose its community college. Instead, “You will have a branch campus that will be forced to teach courses and programs exactly the same everywhere.”

“A physics professor at Norwalk Community College who’s been involved in the discussion about how this will affect physics classes says the group is very concerned because there is a physics course at Three Rivers. In that course they teach a component on nuclear physics,” Aimé said. “Why? Because Dominion is in your area, and some of our students are training to go to work there.” Aimé and Khan-Bureau say this offering could be at risk because of the merger.

When asked whether the nuclear physics course and associate science program at Three Rivers would remain if consolidation goes through, Appleby said yes, and that it is not in danger.

“It will continue to be offered. The difference is that students at other colleges interested in the nuclear physics programs can begin core coursework at their home campus before taking specialized courses on the Three Rivers campus,” he wrote in an email.

'Building an empire' 

While the CSCU claims the merger will not affect faculty control of what gets taught, many faculty members don’t believe this assertion, said Haddad, the co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. “The truth lies somewhere in between.”

“When the administration says there’s absolutely no negative impact of consolidating 12 institutions into one, it defies logic,” he said. “These institutions can act independently to create academic programs to meet the needs of their local employers and the local community now. That won’t be possible when there’s a single institution because the decision won’t be made locally. Clearly there’s going to be a loss of responsiveness ... To say there will be no negative impact I think is just spin.” 

Freeman argued that resources are being taken from Norwich, Hartford and Farmington and being reallocated toward hiring and reshuffling administrators to aid in facilitating the merger.

“We’re talking about large sums of money, millions of dollars, that are basically being siphoned off of college campuses and being spent on administrators and managers in Hartford and New Britain. All of that money could’ve gone to services for students,” Freeman said. “Community colleges are pointed at since enrollment is down. We’ve been understaffed for years. We have to talk about the understaffing and how that impacts enrollment, retention and graduation. That would require investment, and this merger is about not having to make investments unfortunately.”

Coan said the merger, first introduced four years ago, is “about building an empire.”

“A lot of people are furthering their careers on the back of this. A lot of people have been promoted to higher positions, have left their colleges and are now working on this project, and they’ve all gotten nice big raises,” Coan said. “Their futures are dependent on this being approved and continuing. There’s a lot of self-interest here. Their reputations are caught up in this thing.” 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, have raised the same issue of administrative bloat.

“The idea is to create one overarching bureaucracy and save a lot of money that you can pump into student services,” Cheeseman said. “Listening to the faculty, you’ve created this giant overarching bureaucracy but you’re using exactly the same amount of money.”

Appleby said the contention that the state university system is spending too much money on administrators due to the consolidation “is simply not true.”

Connecticut State Community College will have fewer administrative positions and has realized actual savings of $11.6 million in fiscal year 2019 and $17.18 million in fiscal year 2020, and it expects savings of more than $20 million per year, he wrote in an email. “At the same time, as part of the merger, we are moving toward Guided Pathways, a suite of reforms aimed at providing significant additional student supports.”

s.spinella@theday.com 

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