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State Officials Agree On Plan To Reorganize Higher Education

As Malloy proposed, board of regents will oversee community colleges and state universities

Kathleen Megan

April 27, 2011

After being stalled for weeks, the governor's plan to consolidate the management of the state's community colleges, the Connecticut State University system and Charter Oak College is moving forward.

Rep. Roberta B. Willis, who co-chairs the legislature's higher education committee, and Mark Ojakian, deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, announced Wednesday that they have agreed to go ahead with the reorganization plan a key part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget proposal.

Willis, D-Salisbury, had adamantly opposed the merger for months, fearing that it would jeopardize the distinct mission and character of the colleges, particularly the community colleges.

"They serve a critical and defined need in our communities," Willis said, "one that must be maintained even as we seek efficiencies and savings."

But on Wednesday, Willis said she has been assured that her concerns will be met.

Willis and other legislators also were concerned that Malloy's proposed consolidation did not include the University of Connecticut, and they questioned how much money the plan would save.

Flattening Overhead

The agreement's main points include the creation of a board of regents that will oversee the four state universities, the community colleges and Charter Oak. That board will replace the separate boards of trustees overseeing each of the colleges, as well as the Department of Higher Education's board of governors.

Ojakian said the plan will flatten administrative costs and overhead, allowing the direction of more money to students and classroom instruction.

"In the end, it's the students who win," he said.

The agreement says the board of regents will become effective July 1, but Ojakian said the college and university boards will remain in place until Jan. 1 to ease the transition.

Willis said she believed the central office staff and chancellors would remain in place during this transitional period as well, but Ojakian said that matter will be up to the board of regents.

"No one is saying who's going to stay and who's going to go on July 1," Ojakian said. The consolidation is expected to eliminate 24 of the 200 employees now working in three central offices, for a savings of $4.3 million.

The plan calls for a president or chief executive officer to work for the board of regents and oversee the consolidated system.

An important component of Wednesday's agreement, Willis said, is that a "lead individual" will represent each constituent unit the state university system, the community colleges and Charter Oak helping to ensure that each system's voice is heard.

Ojakian said a lead individual "will be more of a facilitator than a typical chancellor."

The agreement also creates an advisory commission to the board of regents, whose duties will include working with the board to create and carry out a strategic plan for higher education that will include the University of Connecticut.

Willis said this advisory commission also will help make sure that higher education programs are responsive to student concerns and employers' needs for a well-trained workforce.

Richard J. Balducci, acting chairman of the state university board of trustees, said he had seen only a brief summary of the plan. "Will it have a positive or negative effect?" he asked. "It says everybody is supposed to retain their autonomy, which I think is critical. If that's true, fine."

Balducci said it is important that the trustees remain in place through the end of the year so its search committee can continue with the process of hiring a new president for Southern Connecticut State University.

Officials at the community colleges feared that a consolidation would hamper their efforts to develop well-trained workers, said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for the community college system. She said Wednesday that she was encouraged that the agreement includes an advisory commission.

"We are trying to be hopeful about that," she said.

Michael P. Meotti, commissioner of higher education, said he thinks the plan "will create savings to benefit campuses and students in the short run and over the long term will be a better governance structure to achieve the goals everyone wants."

Meotti said he's not certain what will happen to his status as of July 1. He said it will be up to the new board of regents to configure its new office but, he said, there won't be a commissioner of higher education.

A 'Leap Of Faith'

For the past two weeks, Willis spent long hours in negotiation with Ojakian and at times it was unclear whether an agreement had been reached. At one point, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the other co-chairwoman of the higher education committee and a strong proponent of Malloy's approach, thought that was the case.

Willis who has served on the higher education committee for a decade, most of that time as co-chair said she had been excited when Malloy took office and made it clear he wanted to revamp higher education. She became "disheartened" when it appeared that her concerns might be ignored.

Revisions in the plan hammered out in recent negotiations with Ojakian have alleviated her concerns, though not entirely, Willis said.

"It's a leap of faith that we are going to work on," Willis said. "There's a lot that hasn't been filled in."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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