christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Bobby Berriault, a graduate of Asnuntuck Community College testifies against the consolidation (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 4 p.m.) The state Board of Regents approved a plan to combine Connecticut’s 12 community colleges into one college with 12 separate campuses in three regions Thursday while warning that the proposal was still a work in progress.

The consolidation effort, which will lead to the shedding of 190 positions, will save the Connecticut State University System, which is controlled by the Board of Regents, about $28 million annually over the next four years. An additional $13 million will be saved by finding efficiencies across the whole system, including the combined community colleges, the four regional colleges (CCSU, SCSU, ECSU and WCSU), and the Charter Oak online college.

Faculty and staff were largely opposed to the consolidation and expressed concern that it would cost them their identity and the services they currently enjoy at their 12 campuses.

“There’s a lot of happy talk,” John O’Connor, a member of the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors, said after the vote in which only one board member abstained.

But O’Connor said there isn’t really a plan and they’re going to make it up at the expense of students as they go forward.

“What they’re trying to do is impose business solutions on public higher ed, and it just doesn’t work,” O’Connor said.

Elena Tapia, president of the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors, said the financial details in the plan are “foggy.”

“The plan offers no real evidence or overall balance sheet to support claims of saving millions of dollars for a system that has been bled dry by continued state funding cuts,” Tapia said.

However, it’s those state spending cuts that inspired Connecticut State University System President Mark Ojakian to work on the plan, which is titled “Students First.”

Ojakian, who created the Board of Regents to oversee the 12 community colleges, four state universities, and one online college back when he was a member of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, said Thursday that the state is facing an $8 billion deficit over the next four years so they can’t continue to go to lawmakers and expect to see funding increases.

“That would be irresponsible. There is no more money to ask for,” he said.

That’s why he had to come up with this plan, which was panned by all the faculty and students who spoke Thursday.

He said if they didn’t move forward to change how the community college system is structured, then they would have to start picking winners and losers in deciding which colleges stay open and which ones close.

“Not everybody is going to agree with this. I get it,” Ojakian said.

The identity of the individual community colleges — and their relationships with their local communities and affiliated businesses that support them — was a theme that kept coming up Thursday.

John Shafer, a faculty member at Middlesex Community College for 30 years, said the consolidation will compromise the main purpose of community colleges, which is to serve the citizens and the students in the local area. He said one large community college institution is not a community college.

Students also expressed their concern about what it would mean for the services they currently receive on campus.

If it wasn’t for the administrative staff in the financial services office at Asnuntuck Community College, Bobby Berriault said he wouldn’t have graduated in 2011.

Berriault, who said he had been homeless and floated from foster home to foster home as a youth, said he was often told it was silly to dream about attending college. He has since graduated from Central Connecticut State University and is attending Western New England University Law School.

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Matt Fleury, chairman of the Board of Regents and Connecticut State University System President Mark Ojakian (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Asnuntuck Community College was instrumental in his success. In fact it was so important, he said he planned to attend Thursday’s meeting even when he had brain surgery scheduled later in the afternoon. The surgery was postponed, but Berriault said he would have been there regardless.

“This was my only path toward success,” Berriault said.

He said coming from a foster home he needed all the support he could get from the financial aid office and he didn’t have a car to go somewhere else for that assistance if it couldn’t be done by phone.

“I’m skeptical that this is going to save money,” Berriault said pointing to the original consolidation of the community colleges and the four state universities, which didn’t create the savings that was expected.

Regardless, Berriault said they will still have the same number of students with needs to be met.

There are about 55,000 students in the community college system.

“What this does is create more inefficiencies,” Berriault said. “And more bureaucracy that students have to go through in order to get their needs met.”

He also objected to the process. The details of the plan weren’t finalized until Dec. 4 when students and teachers were working on their final exams at an already busy time of year. He said he thinks the legislature should have more of a say in what a community college consolidation should look like.

Members of the Board of Regents were concerned about the possible loss of accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges at the individual community colleges and the need to get one entity accredited.

Merle Harris, one of the board members, said the number of colleges being accredited isn’t important. She said they are all accredited until 2022, so there’s a few years to work through the process.

“We want a more nimble system and not a more bureaucratic system,” Harris said.

Yvette Melendez, another board member, said she has concerns about the expectations with respect to administration responsibilities.

Melendez said mergers can work, but they can also be disastrous.

In order for a merger to be a success, it needs to revolve around a strategic planning process and it needs to be financially sound, Melendez said.

She said they have to ensure they are going to meet the savings target and should consider an independent financial analysis.

Ojakian said they will continue to work through the process and bring information to the board as frequently as possible.

Labor Commissioner Scott Jackson, who is a member of the board, applauded Ojakian for not using “fear” to motivate people to support the proposal.

He said the next few state budgets are going to be more complex than Ojakian described in his remarks and he knows that change in the “land of steady habits” often feels like one is “stepping into the breach.” But he promised that the changes adopted by the board are not as bad as some have stated.

Board of Regents Chairman Matt Fleury said for the most part the board doesn’t control 80 percent of its costs.

“We live with the reality,” Fleury said. “We can’t lay people off if they’re governed by those agreements.”

Fleury was referring to the State Employees Bargaining Coalition Agreement that says no state employees can be laid off over the next four years. The proposal to lay off 190 employees won’t happen until 2021.

Fleury also said he can’t guarantee that by adopting this plan they can protect students from future tuition increases.