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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

The Connecticut State College and University system has been and remains a grandiose public policymaking experiment. From consolidating our community colleges and regional universities under one administrative umbrella to merging 13 community colleges under a single unit, the system faced, and still faces, various political and financial hurdles.

One hurdle is student course transfers from a community college to a public regional university. It has been a difficult challenge for students and even for faculty and administrators to sort similar courses and curricula details. Even though public higher education in Connecticut is under a large administrative operation, few programs work effectively together on an issue like course transfers. In fact, last semester I helped co-chair a Southern Connecticut State University faculty senate ad hoc committee to investigate a “2+2,” or community college and university pathway for students.

Connecticut’s public higher education system has been underfunded for generations. It has also faced much scrutiny because of financial mismanagement. Even though the University of Connecticut is not tied to the CSCU system, it is a public land-grant university that has received notable attention because of the financial issues raised by itsprevious presidential administration.

Just as our public higher education system faces financial concerns and administrative reforms, a pandemic strikes. CSCU currently has a projected $69 million deficit and our community colleges have a student enrollment drop of 15% this semester. CSCU’s Board of Regents voted last week to use nearly half of its emergency reserves – $15 million – and almost the same amount in federal pandemic relief funding through the Lamont administration to plug the deficit. But these steps will hardly be enough this year or for future budgetary concerns.

Beyond deficits, system reforms, and enrollment concerns, our state higher education system faces a significant staffing issue. As a way to save costs, the Board of Regents recently instituted hiring freezes. Unions are not budging on additional concessions. This all takes place with the approach of 2022’s “silver tsunami,” when hundreds of faculty and staff are expected to retire since contract changes will affect many longtime employees. In fact, CSCU President Mark Ojakian announced his own retirement recently.

So our state higher education system continues to experience various challenges expected to continue for decades to come. What to do? Beyond the usual cuts, freezes, reserve-raiding and likely tuition increases, our public university system has remained in a major crossroads. We need to get beyond these administrative and financial hurdles. We must ensure continuity staffing through a tsunami of retirements and institute bold steps to maintain our public higher education system for the future.

With a search for a system president in process, this is the opportune moment for candidates and also employees, students, and alumni to consider what needs to be addressed now and what needs to happen down the road to ensure the CSCU system’s long-term future. Higher education system leaders are often political appointees of elected officials.In this instance, the system is considering a search committee composed of higher education presidents’ appointees to decide the new president. This is a helpful start to reforming the CSCU system.

At the same time, what will the system face? Should further consolidation and merger measures remain on the table? How can we increase and retain student enrollment? How can we recruit and keep our staff? These are pressing issues, especially during a pandemic and an economic slowdown.

Adhering to the status quo of cuts, hiring freezes, and tuition increases is not sustainable. Instead, we should be informed and engaged in finding pathways to resolve our past, present, and future challenges within Connecticut’s public higher education system.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs and the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Interim Associate Dean at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR’s Wheelhouse radio show.

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