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Professors back bill that could hamstring community college consolidation

Critics of Connecticut’s community college consolidation came out in droves Tuesday during a public hearing for a bill that would require legislative approval to close or merge schools in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

Since last year’s legislative session, unionized professors have increased pressure on the state government to step in and stop what they say is a flawed consolidation process. Several professors, including two from Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, on Tuesday threw their vigorous support behind proposed legislation that would require legislative approval for any closure or merger of state colleges.

Approval of the process, designed to bring all 12 of the community colleges under one centralized administration, called the Connecticut State Community College, currently goes through the CSCU's Board of Regents, or BOR, and its accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education. Tuesday's hearing came on the heels of the NECHE's approval Tuesday morning for CSCU to go ahead with the consolidation.

“With regard to the consolidation of the community colleges ... I do believe the legislature has a role to play,” state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said during her testimony Tuesday. “This is a major step forward. I see there was provisional approval issued by NECHE today with a lot of caveats and I think we should look very carefully at how we provide education to the youth of our state.”

Professors' complaints range from criticism of what they characterize as an excess of bureaucracy to a siphoning of staff and resources from the schools. They also said proponents of the process claimed there would be savings but those savings haven't materialized.

Three Rivers environmental engineering professor Diba Khan-Bureau said she is speaking for many other staff members who aren’t speaking out of fear of retaliation. She wasn’t the only professor to make this point.

“Ten years ago the state moved to reduce the number of administrators in our community college system, the BOR is now adding a completely new middle management layer between the colleges and the CSCU System office, including a new building costing taxpayers millions of dollars in New Britain,” Khan-Bureau said. “While supporters argue that the single accreditation will benefit students to create a seamless transfer, this can be done by articulation agreements without the additional costs of hiring numerous top administrators.”

Three Rivers English Professor Joe Selvaggio found a metaphor. “On my campus there is a parking space reserved for the BOR, almost every time I walk by it, this parking space is empty. It symbolizes for me the direction consolidation is taking our institutions,” he said. “Employees often cannot get timely help from Human Resources because like the parking space, the HR office on our campus is empty and the door is locked on most days.”

Sean Bradbury, senior director of government relations and external affairs for CSCU, acted as the voice of the system during the testimony on Tuesday, saying that removing the authority to close or merge institutions from the Board of Regents “creates both statutory and accreditation concerns. It also prohibits the merger of our community colleges.”

Bradbury argued that the "Act Requiring Legislative Approval for the Merger or Closing of Institutions Within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities and Prohibiting the Consolidation of the Regional Community-Technical Colleges" would “undermine” the CSCU’s authority and autonomy. Central to his case was that politicians would be motivated by politics when signing off on closing or merging decisions.

“It is vital that approvals of mergers or closure continue to be governed by the BOR and NECHE, rather than creating a political process,” Bradbury said. “Governing boards, institutions and accreditors make these decisions based on what is best for the students, institutions and communities they serve, not based on what is the popular or politically expeditious solution.”

Some of the legislators participating in the hearing took issue with Bradbury’s contention. Higher Education Committee co-chair Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, said it suggested to him that the BOR “might be saying lawmakers are incapable of taking action and voting on something that’s in the best interest of the students. I believe all my colleagues ... are fully capable of making decisions that have nothing to do with their self-interest.”

Bradbury took a small victory lap regarding the NECHE approval on Tuesday.

“Last week, a delegation from CSCU attended the New England Commission of Higher Education meeting in Boston to present our request for a substantive change regarding the merger of the 12 community colleges into CT State,” he said in his testimony. “We are thrilled to share with you that we have received word that the Commission has accepted the substantive change proposal.”

Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, echoed Cheeseman later on during Tuesday’s hearing in response to Bradbury’s testimony. “If you guys had handled it and done a good job, maybe we wouldn’t be here, but it’s been a cluster, and I think this makes sense at this point in time,” he said in expressing support for the bill.

The main goals of the consolidation are financial, as the state’s community college enrollment continues to decline, and CSCU has said it will “enhance student outcomes.” But professors on Tuesday said that the consolidation has actually come at expense of the students and on-the-ground resources as CSCU attempts to establish new administrative management and cut costs elsewhere.

“If we follow the money, we see this merger is simply a diversion of state resources and funding away from community college campuses to system managers in Hartford and New Britain,” Seth Freeman, Capital Community College professor and the president of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges union, otherwise known as the 4Cs, said in his testimony. “This results in gross layers of redundant and wasteful system management. Along with the transfer of funding and resources is the transfer of decision-making abilities. The merger has already resulted in resources and decision-making abilities being taken away from faculty, staff, and administrators who are closest to our students.”

Legislators and professors also alike fear a loss of local control, especially when it comes to curriculum. The CSCU system has repeatedly disputed claims about a loss of local and faculty control over curriculums. What will change is that a single institution's curriculum must be aligned across the new college system. Professors and administrators disagree on what that should look like.

Freeman and others reported being “demoralized” in witnessing the “downsizing” of the state’s community college system, as well as “seeing our colleges being eroded to ‘branch campuses.’”

Colena Sesanker, an associate professor at Gateway Community College and political director of the 4Cs, also pointed out that CSCU’s central administration “has grown so large that we’ve acquired a second system office in New Britain while the student services offices struggle with the challenges of understaffing at the very same time.”

“CSCU leadership promised economies of scale and efficiency in sharing ‘back-office’ functions across all 12 colleges, but those savings have yet to be seen,” Sesanker continued. “Instead of efficiency we see duplicated functions in a bloated and circuitous bureaucratic processes. Decisions are made at a great distance from the people we serve, projections presented with no evidence to support them and in spite of the abundant evidence experienced educators offer to the contrary.”

On Thursday CSCU is presenting on the consolidation for the Higher Education Committee.


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