The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
Consolidation plan rejected
Accrediting panel finds proposed merger ‘unrealistic’
HARTFORD — A controversial and unprecedented plan to merge the state’s 12 community college into one was summarily rejected Tuesday by a regional accrediting body.
In a pointed three-page letter dated April 24 to system President Mark Ojakian, architect of the plan called “Students First,” the New England Association of Schools and College’s Higher Education Commission called the plan “unrealistic.”
Ojakian, who had proposed merging the state’s community college into one accredited body with 12 campuses to save money and preserve student services, called the decision devastating.
"Students First was created to avert a major crisis for our institutions and our students,” Ojakian said in a statement released jointly with Matt Fleury, chairman of the Board of Regents that oversees not only community colleges, but the state’s four regional universities.
Without NEASC approval, the colleges would not be authorized to issue diplomas.
Critics of the plan were surprised but pleased by the rejection.
“It’s not what we expected, but (NEASC) saw what we saw,” said Barbara Richards, a professor at
Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport who is on the system’s Faculty Advisory Committee.
In his letter to Ojakian, David Angel, chairman of the NEASC commission, said the commission determined that what as being proposed wasn’t just a “substantive change” needing a specific set of paperwork, but an entirely new institution that needs to go through an entirely different vetting process. That process can take up to five years.
Ojakian said the NEASC decision is not in the best interest of students and will damage the system’s ability to hold the line on tuition and keep all campuses open.
“In the face of an ongoing fiscal emergency, it forces us to consider options that we have strongly
fought against because it will harm the 50,000 students who rely on their campuses and their campus communities, said Ojakian.
The system has struggled with dropping enrollment and diminished state support for several years.
The consolidation plan, however, got vocal pushback from some faculty, staff and foundations that work to support the 12 colleges. Some claimed the process wasn’t transparent enough. Others feared the colleges would lose the “community” focus that makes them special.
Still, Lauren Doninger, a psychology professor at Gateway Community College in New Haven said she was stunned by the decision.
“It was all moving very fast,” she said. “And we were all moving along with the assumption it was going to happen.”
She worries about what will happen next.
So does Richards, who nonetheless called the decision “thoughtful.”
David Blitz, a philosophy professor at Central Connecticut State University and member of Central’s faculty senate, said he too was pleasantly surprised by the decision.
“I was not sure what NEASC would do but clearly they saw it as the poorly formulated plan it was,” Blitz said.
Blitz maintains the system would do better to start by chipping away at office personnel to save money.
Louise Blakeney Williams, president of Central’s AAUP chapter, said she was relieved.
Rather than putting students first, Williams said, faculty throughout the state system worried the plan would put them at a serious disadvantage.
“NEASC saw that the Board of Regents’ consolidation plan ... was ill-researched and woefully underestimated
the scope of the undertaking,” Williams said.
The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities has been working for a year on the plan and hoped to complete the merger by the fall of 2019.
It would have created one application and one financial aid form for students to fill out. Many administrative positions would have been eliminated or merged. What resources would have been saved presumably would have been redirected to students services.
During the planning process, the state consulted several times with NEASC and in January the accrediting organization issued a lengthy set of questions and concerns before the final application was submitted last month.
Last week, the commission met to vote on the plan. It disclosed its decision to state officials Tuesday.
“The commission is concerned
that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high,” Angel said. The commission also faulted the merger plan for not appearing to have sufficient administrative staff at the campus level.
State Rep. Pam Staneski said she is shocked that after working with the Board of Regents on the application, they now want them to fill out a different kind of application.
“This plan was put forth in good faith and would have saved students money while keeping our community colleges open . ... Our students cannot afford another tuition increase, and I am not sure that we can afford to keep schools open that are operating in the red.”
NEASC said the 12 separately accredited colleges can continue as they are now. Ojakian said the accrediting body is aware that individually, the colleges cannot financially survive.
“While we expected further guidance, we did not expect NEASC to redirect us to consider ... a new process that will take another five years,” Ojakian said. “The problems that our institutions and students face cannot wait five years. In five years, our institutions will be financially insolvent.”
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy predicted the decision will have an adverse impact on the entire CSCU system if an alternative solution is not found soon.
“We stand ready to serve as thought partners to President Ojakian and Chairmen Fleury as they review their options to mitigate this setback,” Donnelly said”
In the coming days, Ojakian said the Board of Regents will review its options, including legislative and accrediting options, a review of tuition rates and closing one or more campuses.