HARTFORD — A move to consolidate the state’s 12 community colleges into a single entity is one step closer to reality.
The Board of Regents for Higher Education approved the consolidation on Thursday. Now it goes to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits higher education institutions, for its approval.
Merle Harris, a member of the regents board, said the system is moving appropriately to ensure that accreditation.
“It is all under control,” she said.
The board voted 12-0 with one abstention to endorse the Students First initiative to consolidate the administration of the decades-old community colleges — including Norwalk, Housatonic in Bridgeport and Gateway in New Haven — into one college with three regions and a dozen campuses.
A name for the new college is still being debated, system officials said.
Proposed last spring, the Students First plan faced strong opposition Thursday by a room full of faculty, foundation leaders and some students before the vote was cast.
“I am disappointed although I knew that the (board) would just rubber-stamp whatever was put in front of them without question or thought,” Lois Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College, said.
On the other hand, Hector Navarro, a student from Nauguatuck Community College representing the Student Advisory Council to the board, said the plan represents hope.
“We are aware of the negative feedback but why would anyone fight against the effort?” he told the board.
As he spoke, a number of audience members grumbled.
System President Mark Ojakian said he hopes for initial accreditation for the new college as early as June and full accreditation by July 2019.
“This is about making choices and prioritizing where we spend our limited resources,” an undeterred Ojakian said. “We can either continue down the road of closing campuses, which we would be on if we didn’t make any of these changes, or move forward.”
The effort was undertaken as state support and enrollment have been on a steady decline. There are now 53,000 students spread over the 12 colleges. In 2013, there were 57,321 students enrolled in the schools.
With the state staring at a $8 billion deficit, Ojakian said, the system needs to change.
Students First, he said, keeps all campuses, branches and satellites open.
The resulting system would cut roughly 190 staff jobs and save — officials hope — some $28 million. The cuts would include campus presidents, to be replaced by vice presidents. Other positions would be created, leaving faculty and others unconvinced there will be any true savings.
“The cost of running the current system will pale in comparison to fixing what you will break,” said Stephen Cohen, a professor and faculty senate president at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. “If you break this system, the state of Connecticut cannot afford to fix it.”
State Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, a ranking member of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, supports the consolidation and attended the meeting.
“It’s not surprising. I expected nothing less,” said Staneski after the vote was taken. “I support it because the state is broke … and we can’t tuition our way out of this.”
Those who spoke against the plan included representatives of college foundations who worry they will lose local support when it comes to raising dollars for scholarships and other campus initiatives that are vital to the colleges.
Also concerned are faculty who fear creating what could become the fifth largest community college in the country.
“One large state institution is not a community college,” said John Schafer, co-chair of the Community College Governance Assembly and a Middlesex Community College faculty member
Stephen Adair, representing the Faculty Advisory Committee, urged the board to delay a vote at least until a multitude of questions can be answered. Faculty worry what will happen to student grade point averages when pooled in a large system, about the potential loss of grants awarded to individual colleges and transitional costs needed to make consolidation happen by July 2019.
”I ask the board to simply recognized and acknowledge that the loss of institutional accreditation diminishes the value of each campus,” Adair said.
Board Chair Matt Fluery said there is no credible alternative that can approach the savings the new system is expected to generate.
”We are prudent in advancing the community college restructuring as recommend,” Fluery said.
John O’Connor, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, called it a horrible day for a collection of colleges that started developing in the 1960s.
“Students lost today,” he insisted.
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