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    Wednesday, December 07, 2022

    Community college professors meet with Stefanowski about consolidation

    Madison — Community college professors and union leaders met with Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski in Madison on July 1 for a listening session.

    The professors, including Diba Khan-Bureau, who teaches environmental engineering and technology at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, said the meeting was consequential because Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has not met with them. They were joined by state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, for the July 1 meeting.

    “Lamont has not shown any inclination to meet with us," Khan-Bureau said. "It’s almost like we are not important enough because we are community college faculty.”

    “Our current governor has never met with us in three-and-a-half years despite repeated efforts to reach him,” Tunxis Community College history professor Francis Coan said.

    Khan-Bureau explained the impetus for the meeting: “Lamont hasn’t listened to a word we’ve said. Maybe we have to do something different, maybe we have to talk to Stefanowski, see what he has to say. Maybe he’s going to surprise us.”

    The professors' union even paid for a billboard in Hartford several months ago to get Lamont’s attention, reading: "Governor Lamont: Please HELP our students! Stop the consolidation of our 12 Community Colleges.”

    “It was a really good conversation and incredibly valuable to hear the perspective of the faculty of the community colleges,” Stefanowski said in a statement. "They are tackling important issues, passionate about providing the best education for their students, and I appreciated their time.”

    Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

    The process of consolidating the state’s community colleges, which was proposed in 2018, is nearing completion but the professors’ fight to stop it has only become more pronounced.

    The consolidation 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. Supporters and administrators argue that the consolidation will make it easier for students to transfer among the schools and will cut excess costs.

    Professors say the merger will take away local decision-making from faculty, staff and administrators closest to students. Instead, they say, a new administrative office in New Britain — in addition to an existing office in West Hartford — will be behind decision-making, including whether to close community colleges. Institutions like Three Rivers will essentially become branch campuses of an administrative office.

    “I know the main concern among many of the professors is, now that you’ve created that one community college system, one college with branches, then it’s much easier to close individual branches,” Cheeseman said. “If there is a genuine lack of enrollment, there may be a case to be made, but currently I think this whole consolidation confuses the issue on that anyway.”

    In this year’s legislative session, the higher education committee passed a bill that could hamstring the consolidation. It would give power to the state legislature to stop any mergers or closures of community colleges. But the bill was never called to the floor for a vote.

    The professors speculated on why Democratic leadership refused to call the bill, noting that former Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief of staff Mark Ojakian spearheaded the consolidation process.

    “The fact that the Democratic legislature refused to call the bill — they’re not willing to stand up for their state versus their party,” said Lois Aimé, the director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College. “So it’s deeply disappointing. It was a partisan process, and it should not have been.”

    “At this point, we have not met a legislator willing to risk their career over this issue,” Coan said.

    The CSCU has not been clear on the finances for this project. During a public hearing on the bill that would give legislative oversight, multiple legislators asked for more information and questioned the projections of the administrative staff. 

    “All the savings they’re showing me are from attrition. I thought the whole point was, you‘re going get savings because of your central purchasing, central HR funding, all those things,” Cheeseman said. “If the majority of savings you’ve identified were attrition, wouldn’t that work anyway without creating this whole new layer of bureaucracy?”

    The professors say they have about a year, as the CSCU is aiming to open the one college on July 1, 2023, “at which point the 12 independent colleges will cease to exist,” Khan-Bureau said. They have not given up on stopping the consolidation, and believe either a change of heart in the legislature, or a change of leadership in the Executive Branch, could stave off what they say is the worst-case scenario.

    Cheeseman is unsure if the consolidation can be stopped at this point. The CSCU’s accrediting body accepted the consolidation proposal, to the delight of the CSCU, but still highlighted some shortcomings.

    “They did still have a number of issues that they felt needed to be addressed before they could grant the accreditation to the one community college system,” Cheeseman said.

    s.spinella@theday.com

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