HARTFORD, CT – An overflow crowd packed Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting to criticize a money-saving plan that calls for both tuition increases and consolidations of the state’s regional and community college system.
The board last month adopted Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian’s framework for both tuition increases and savings through administrative consolidations.
About 90,000 students attend the 17 schools in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. Last month the Board of Regents approved a plan that increased tuition 4 percent at the four regional state universities, 2.5 percent at the 12 community colleges and 4 percent at the online Charter Oak College. It also approved a series of student fee hikes.
All told those tuition and fee increases are expected to bring in about $21 million, but that’s only about half of the college system’s projected deficit.
It is the other part of Ojakian’s plan – to consolidate operations to save $28 million – that received most of the audience’s ire at the board meeting Thursday, though many also criticized the planned tuition increases.
“The plan uses austerity measures that will detract from quality programs rather than actively investing in the public higher education institutions that are educating the future leaders of our state,” Louise Williams, history professor at Central Connecticut State University and CCSU-AAUP chapter president, said.
“The plan also fails to protect the unique missions of each of the 11 community colleges and the four regional Connecticut State university’s,” Williams said.
Speaker after speaker told the board that consolidating the colleges would take away the uniqueness of each individual college.
“If you put all the president’s into one than the students aren’t getting what they deserve,” Joe Luchene, a CCSU senior from Waterbury, said.
Luchene, who held up a sign saying: “Here’s a Plan: Free Tuition For Students” said that education should be a “right for all, not a privilege.”
Fellow CCSU student Brian Becker added: “Students are being asked to pay for a crisis we didn’t create. We should be expanding access to college. We know that austerity does not lead to prosperity.”
Many in the audience, which spilled over into the hallways from the small meeting room, said they were both puzzled and angered that the board approved Ojakian’s consolidation framework plan before any dialogue.
Sue Holt, a psychology professor at CCSU, was blunt in her assessment of Ojakian’s plan.
“It’s a seriously flawed plan that adversely affects the quality of higher education in Connecticut,” Holt said. She added it was also “shoved through in a ridiculously short period of time.”
Stephen Adair, a non-voting member of the board and chair of the faculty advisory committee, emphasized that point in a report he presented.
He called it “troubling” that the board accepted Ojakian’s report “without any public review, without any public deliberation.”
Adair said when the report is accepted in its final form, it is the faculty advisory committee’s recommendation that “open meetings” be held on the report before any final action is taken.
Adair added other concerns the advisory committee had is whether individual college’s fundraising efforts would be hampered under a consolidation plan, and, why Ojakian didn’t ask each individual president to submit his or her own cost savings plan before going to the extreme step of recommending consolidation.
He said the consolidation plan “more resembled a sledge hammer than a scalpel.”
Ojakian told critics of the plan that they were wrong if they think he has already figured out the end result.
“We are working on a two-year implementation period,” Ojakian said. Ojakian said he has spent the past several weeks going to all 17 campuses and “having conversations about the best way to move forward.”
“I want to hear from folks and advocate on behalf of our system and our students,” Ojakian said.
But, he also told the audience, “We need to be realistic about what the financial condition of the state is,” noting that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed a plan to close this year’s $389.8 million deficit. That’s in addition to the $5.1 billion deficit the state is facing over the next two years.
Ojakian said the college system will have to find additional savings over the next several weeks, totaling about $1.7 million, to help with this year’s state budget.
But he tried to reassure the doubters in the audience by reiterating that as the consolidation plan proceeds, “We will shift strategy; we will shift direction.”
Ojakian received backup from board member Lawrence DeNardis, who told the group: “Our mantra is not about raising tuition. We are looking for systemic change.”