The new president of the state’s system of 17 public colleges and universities is now firmly ensconced in his seat. And much to the chagrin of some of his employees — and perhaps even Pete Townshend — Mark Ojakian’s presence isn’t simply a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Ojakian, a former chief of staff to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has been trying to do what the formation in 2011 of the new Board of Regents overseeing all the public colleges except UConn was supposed to address — namely control escalating administrative expenses while directing more resources toward students and streamlining the process for transferring credits between the institutions governed by the board.
Neither of those goals has been accomplished. In fact, the opposite has happened. In the four years since the formation of the Board of Regents, the central office budget has risen by $5.5 million, there are 67 fewer full-time faculty at the state’s second-tier regional universities, and the top lawyer for state employee unions has suggested that the board is improperly outsourcing state employee jobs.
“The arrow is moving in the wrong direction. Not only is it not acceptable; it’s not what we were promised,” said state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, who chairs the General Assembly’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.
To be fair, it’s not clear whether it was a lack of will that accounted for the poor results, or whether it was the game of musical chairs and monkey business among the first two presidents of the board. The first, Robert Kennedy, along with two senior executives of the board, resigned over a scandal in which 21 education officials were improperly given hundreds of thousands of dollars in extravagant raises.
Kennedy himself was given a sweetheart deal that allowed him to hang out at his family’s second home in Minnesota for almost nine weeks and “work remotely” — which, given his sparsely populated calendar, sounded like a euphemism for an extended vacation. The second president, Gregory Gray, resigned after no-confidence votes by faculty at the four universities and at least seven of the community colleges. Among other things, Gray had rankled lawmakers, including Willis, with an ill-fated attempt to shut down the Meriden branch of Middlesex Community College.
Prompted by a budget crisis, Ojakian, who as Malloy’s right hand man was the architect of the regents’ creation, is embracing a proposal that faculty at the state colleges insist “will destroy the core mission of the universities.”
The proposal would allow the colleges and universities to use more part-time staff to teach courses, use available funding as a factor in determining class sizes, increase the number of office hours faculty must offer to students, and make faculty personnel files subject to freedom-of-information requests.
One union boss hurled the ultimate progressive insult in a blog post about Malloy entitled “A Democratic Scott Walker?” It was a reference to a Republican Wisconsin governor reviled by unions because he signed legislation in 2011 limiting collective bargaining for public employees.
The discourse reached such a fevered pitch that Central Connecticut State English Prof. Paul Petrie penned an op-ed for The Connecticut Mirror accusing Ojakian and the regents of mounting “a scorched-earth attack on the faculty of Connecticut’s four state universities and the students they serve.” But wait. There’s more. “Powers this sweeping, once granted, guarantee their eventual abuse,” Petrie concluded.
I have always been struck by how empowered public employees feel when it comes to challenging the powers-that-be. I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed public employees attack their bosses in public forums in such way that would surely get them fired in the private sector.
Be that as it may, no one likes to be ordered to do more work and have less authority for the same money. I get that. Nevertheless, the money has to come from somewhere. The state is facing yet another fiscal crisis and I haven’t seen serious proposals to deal with the shortfall and make the system more efficient coming from Petrie or his allies over at CT Higher Education Matters. Presumably, they’d like fewer administrators or they want to raise taxes on “the rich” — which usually means anyone who makes more money than they do.
I understand the unions’ distaste for the regents, given the board’s checkered past and Ojakian’s lack of experience in higher educaiton, but Ojakian is a decent man who deserves better treatment than to be branded, along with the regents, as people who want “to demolish public higher education.” Ojakian wants to make the system more efficient, flexible, and dynamic. It may not be what the education establishment wants, but that’s no reason to pillory a public servant who’s just doing his boss’ bidding.
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