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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Community college administrators defend consolidation

    Just two days after state legislators considered a bill that could hamstring the consolidation of community colleges, administrators from the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system told those same legislators why continuing with the consolidation is the right move.

    Terrence Cheng, the CSCU president, said Thursday before the Higher Education Committee that with the system’s accrediting body’s approval of its “substantive change” proposal, “We are slated to open the doors of Connecticut State Community College in July of 2023.”

    The consolidation process is designed to bring all 12 of the state's community colleges under one centralized administration, called the Connecticut State Community College, through the CSCU's Board of Regents and its accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education. But on Tuesday, lawmakers considered a bill that would require legislative approval to close or merge schools in the system.

    Thursday’s question-and-answer session with Cheng and other administrators struck a different tone. Most legislators indicated they had come around to the CSCU's view that the consolidation is inevitable and instead of trying to pause it, disparate stakeholders should try to come together and make it smoother.

    State Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, who has called himself a “merger skeptic” in the past, said that while he’s not sure the merger is the only way to achieve streamlined services and a better adviser-to-student ratio, “nonetheless this is the way we’re going to achieve it.”

    Goals of the merger

    Cheng and other administrators said the consolidation will allow for aligning curriculums on all 12 campuses and for enrolled students to take classes on any campus, among other positives. But financial stability, or the CSCU’s lack thereof, dominated Thursday’s conversation.

    Michael Rooke, interim president of Connecticut State Community College and president of Northwestern Connecticut Community College, said during his part of the presentation that two of the 12 schools in the system currently “have negative financial reserves,” and part of the consolidation will be to “restructure staffing to account for enrollment declines.”

    CSCU officials haven't been clear about what happens to staff in such a restructuring but staff members have said they fear layoffs.

    State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, and other lawmakers said they were concerned that the merger could result in a loss of jobs or the closure of schools. Administrators said both scenarios were not in the plans and, particularly regarding the closure of schools, would be a last resort.

    Interim Chief Financial Officer Kerry Kelley outlined “historic enrollment declines” — 34% since 2014. She said 84% of spending is on personnel, and the system duplicates services throughout its 12 campuses. She said the consolidation aims to reduce non-student-facing costs, eliminate duplication of services, align “staff with organizational needs” and increase shared services. This will save money, though no specific savings figures were discussed, and, administrators expect, increase enrollment. Kelley shared CSCU projections for an uptick in enrollment between 2023 and 2028.

    Multiple legislators asked for more detailed projections and to better understand the methodology behind them.

    Pushback

    Administrators also addressed pushback from students and staff on the consolidation during Thursday’s proceedings. Professors repeatedly have expressed a fear of a loss of local control and with it special programs specific to individual campuses. Rooke said consolidation will not do that, instead it will open up these programs to more students.

    “We want to emphasize that each of our colleges currently has unique programs that exist, so for example the nuclear program at Three Rivers,” Rooke said. “Those unique programs will continue to exist, but one of the benefits of having a single institution is students from across the state will be able to access those courses.”

    Higher Education Committee Co-Chair Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, brought up the many opponents of the consolidation and asked how the CSCU can make them believers.

    “We know a lot of people who have real concerns. Assuming that this does go forward, what’s the strategy? Because I think you’re going to have some challenges,” Slap said.

    “We have informally and initially in public and private meetings tried to address as many of these concerns with as many folks as possible, that said we haven’t always done a great job. I think if we went back and did it from the beginning, there would certainly be times where we communicated more efficiently, more effectively and were more inclusive in the process,” Cheng said.

    But, he later added, “It is at times disappointing to know that there are sectors of these constituencies that we have had engagements with .... and yet we continue to hear the same complaints as if our conversations and efforts in the past never happened.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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