ctnewsjunkie file photo
Matt Fleury, Board of Regents chairman and Mark Ojakian, president of CSUS, at a Board of Regents meeting in December 2017 (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — A controversial plan to merge the state’s community college system into one accredited body has been resoundingly rejected by the New England Association of Schools and College’s Higher Education Commission (NEASC).

The plan, called “Students First” and which was a year in the making, was proposed to save millions of dollars.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State University System, and Matt Fleury, chairman of the Board of Regents, called the news “devastating.” The plan to consolidate Connecticut’s 12 community colleges was proposed as a way to save money, but opponents of the plan felt that it would undercut the fabric of the entire system.

In a letter to Ojakian, architect of the consolidation plan, David Angel, chair of the NEASC commission, said the proposal wasn’t “just a substantive change” but an entirely new college system that needs to go through a complete vetting process.

That process could take up to five years.

“Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline, and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment is too high to approve the proposed Community College of Connecticut as a candidate for accreditation based on this proposal,” the letter stated.

Ojakian and Fleury, said the community college system doesn’t have the time for another vetting process, stating the system will be “financially insolvent” before the vetting is completed.

They insisted that the decision will force college officials to “review all of our options including legislative and accrediting options, a review of tuition rates, and the closing of one or more of our campuses.”

“Students First was created to avert a major crisis for our institutions and our students,” both administrators said. “Today, NEASC has issued a response to our Students First consolidation plan. It is not the decision that is best for our students, nor is it the decision for which we had hoped.

“This decision by NEASC is devastating to our ability to hold the line on tuition and keep all campuses open,” Ojakian and Fleury said. “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.”

But “Students First” had plenty of critics, including Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson.

“While I understand the system is under incredible financial strain, the proposal would have destroyed our community college system,” Flexer said.

The rejection was also applauded by the teachers’ union.

“For months, CSU-AAUP has advocated for a more measured, thoughtful and research-based approach to find creative solutions,” the union said in a statement. “Indeed, our students would be best served by a process involving genuine shared governance and consultation with the people who have on-the-ground experience and first-hand knowledge of colleges and universities — the faculty, staff, and students.”

Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, House chairman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said he is not relieved by the news.

“We have arrived at a point in time where the budget outlook for public higher education in Connecticut is bleak and we have no plan to fix the situation,” Haddad said.

“I am deeply concerned for our public colleges,” Haddad said. “We have 17 educational institutions that are run by the Board of Regents and 16 of them are losing money.”

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she’s also concerned about what happens to the cost of an education for students.

She called the decision “extremely shortsighted and harmful.” She said it puts the community college system in an untenable position where they will be forced to “completely close several college campuses, raise tuition rates substantially, demand tens of millions of dollars more every year from state government, or some combination of all of the above.”

She said the system is already suffering due to $61 million in cuts since 2015.