‘Students first’, a failed plan for community college consolidation

This is the fifth year of a protracted and painful effort to consolidate the 12 community colleges that are part of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system – an effort tainted by the system’s excessive authority (on -centralization) and disruption of local institutional autonomy (delocalization).

After all this time, the so-called “Students First” consolidation plan has not achieved its goals of reducing costs while improving services, and cannot do so without the active participation of faculty. But the professors not only expressed their opposition to the plan, but largely withdrew from the process.

Efforts to correct this require a critical examination and significant revision of the plan to strike the right balance between the role of management and that of faculty, and a healthy balance between the different levels of the complex system that is CSCU. .

As a faculty member with three decades of service to my university and as Co-Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the CSCU System Board of Trustees (established under state law section 185), I saw firsthand the flaws of Students First. What began as an effort to ensure the financial viability of community colleges has evolved into what many college professors view as a hostile takeover of their institutions by the system’s central office. In response, some managers now see faculty not as part of the solution but as the problem. The resulting interaction is neither helpful nor happy for either party.

That’s not to say there aren’t serious problems to solve; indeed, there are significant challenges. These include increasing enrolment, retention and graduation rates; reduce the achievement gap between majority and minority students, improve the financial sustainability of colleges, and limit increases in tuition and fees through fully funding public higher education. Students First identified these real problems, but offered a simplistic solution: consolidation, as if that would put an end to all the woes. This produced the current crisis in the CSCU system.

The term “system” when applied to CSCU is appropriate, but should be understood in the broader context of systems theory, the application of which would help solve the problems so evident in Students First. A recent development in systems theory is the notion of systems of systemswhich recognizes the importance of the coordination of component systems in order both to achieve the desired results and to enable the emergence of innovation at the aggregate level without compromising the integrity of the constituent systems.

David Blitz

The idea of ​​systems of systems was first developed in military background, where the coordination of the various branches – land, sea and air, as well as special forces and now even space forces – is necessary for operational success. Proponents of a “students first” approach to this problem would argue for consolidation into one of the various military branches. This would encounter strong opposition from each branch seeking to maintain its identity and structural autonomy to accomplish its specific mission. Instead, what has been done is to develop a systems approach system to produce the desired results, although the overall key to success is whether the action was warranted in the first place.

The system of systems approach is particularly important in Higher Educationanother type of complex multilevel organization.

Consider Connecticut’s four state universities – Eastern, Western, Central, and Southern, each of which is a system with basic, intermediate, and central levels of authority. Base or local units are departments that deliver the programs and courses that form the pedagogical core of each institution. There is an intermediate level of deans to coordinate departments within each sector (such as humanities or sciences), as well as institutional structures that provide shared governance, including program committees and university senates elected by the teachers and staff.

The central management is composed of a president assisted by vice-presidents and general managers, whose function is to allocate resources to support the tasks of the faculty and accomplish the other mandates of the institution, including the development of Workforce. A fourth level, the council of regents provides oversight and oversight of the four universities, but key to this arrangement is that each university retains its own accreditation and autonomy. It works, although the road can be bumpy at times and needs fixing every now and then.

Why then should we believe that Students First will succeed when it proposes the exact opposite: the elimination of accreditation of the 12 community colleges, as well as control of curriculum and pedagogy by administrators (Deans and Associate Deans) rather than by teachers who are content specialists? It is precisely delocalization and over-centralization that must be corrected.

It’s time to review and revise the Students First plan and strike the right balance between the central, middle and grassroots levels in the community college sector, including maintaining elected departments and chairs at the within each college.

Improvements to current operations could be made while maintaining the accreditations of the 12 community colleges. The proposed Connecticut State Community College (CCSC) – if ultimately accredited – would function as their central coordinating body, assisted by a new system office already planned for New Britain (in addition to the existing one in Hartford).

Maintaining the accreditations of constituent colleges is essential to restore the balance between central and local power. It would also provide a fall-back position if the CCSC does not deliver promised results, and protect individual colleges from closures if centralized administration proves too costly and cuts become necessary.

Students First should be removed as a slogan and a significantly revised plan should be developed to reflect a systems approach that avoids both over-centralization and outsourcing. This can be accomplished, but it requires abandoning negative stereotypes both of faculty as obstacles to institutional progress and of administrators as outsiders who interfere unnecessarily. Promoting mutual respect and finding common ground would benefit all parties—students, faculty, and staff as well as administrators, regents, and legislators—all of whom are involved in meeting the challenge of public higher education in our state.

David Blitz is a member of the Community Editorial Board of the Connecticut Mirror. He is a faculty member of Central Connecticut State University’s philosophy department and co-coordinator of its peace studies program. He is Co-Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees and is an ex-officio member of the Board and its Finance and Infrastructure Committee.

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