Photo: Linda Conner Lambeck
HARTFORD — A controversial and unprecedented plan to merge the state’s 12 community college into one of the biggest in the nation was summarily rejected Tuesday by a regional accrediting body.
In a pointed three-page letter dated April 24 to system President Mark Ojakian, architect of the plan called “Students First,” the New England Association of Schools and College’s Higher Education Commission said it was not persuaded the plan was realistic.
Ojakian, who had proposed merging the states community college into one accredited body with 12 campuses to save money and preserve student services, called the decision devastating.
“Students First was created to avert a major crisis for our institutions and our students,” said Ojakian in a statement released jointly with Matt Fleury, chairman of the Board of Regents that oversees not only community colleges but the state’s four regional universities as well.
In his letter to Ojakian, David Angel, chair of the commission, said the commission determined that what as being proposed wasn’t just a “substantive change” but an entirely new institution that needs to go through an entirely different vetting process. That process can take up to five years.
Ojakian said the NEASC decision is not in the best interest of students and will damage the system’s ability to hold the line on tuition and keep all campuses open.
“In the face of an on-going 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, said Ojakian.
The system has struggled with dropping enrollment and diminished state support for several years.
The consolidation plan, however, got vocal push back from some faculty, staff, and foundations that work to support the 12 colleges. Some claimed the process wasn’t transparent enough. Others feared the colleges would lose the “community” focus that makes them special.
Still, Lauren Doninger, a psychology professor at Gateway Community College in New Haven said she was stunned by the decision.
“It was all moving very fast,” she said. “And we were all moving along with the assumption it was going to happen.”
She worries about what will happen next.
So does Barbara Richards, a professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, who is on the system’s Faculty Advisory Committee.
“It’s not what we expected, but (NEASC) saw what we saw,” Richards said. She called the decision very thoughtful.
David Blitz, a philosophy professor at Central Connecticut State University and member of Central’s faculty senate, said he too was pleasantly surprised by the decision.
“I was not sure what NEASC would do but clearly they saw it as the poorly formulated plan it was,” Blitz said.
Blitz maintains the system, would do better, to start, by chipping away at one third of system office personnel to save money.
Louise Blakeney Williams, president of Central’s AAUP chapter said she was relieved.
Rather than putting students first, Williams said faculty worried the plan would put them at a serious disadvantage.
“NEASC saw that the Board of Regents’ consolidation plan … was ill-researched and woefully underestimated the scope of the undertaking,” Williams said.
The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities has been working for a year on the plan and hoped to complete the merger by the fall of 2019. It would have created one application and one financial aid form for students to fill out. Many administrative positions would have been eliminated or merged. Resources saved, presumably would have been redirected to students services.
Without NEASC approval, the colleges would not be authorized to issue diplomas. During the planning process, the state consulted several times with NEASC and in January issued a lengthy set of questions and concerns before the final application was submitted last month. Last week, the commission met to vote on the plan and disclosed its decision to state officials on Tuesday.
“The commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high,” Angel said. The commission also faulted the merger plan for not appearing to have sufficient administrative staff at the campus level.
State Rep. Pam Staneski said she is shocked that after working with the Board of Regents on the application they now want them to fill out a different kind of application.
“This plan was put forth in good faith and would have saved students money while keeping our community colleges open. … Our students cannot afford another tuition increase, and I am not sure that we can afford to keep schools open that are operating in the red.”
NEASC said the 12 separately accredited colleges can continue as they are now. Ojakian said the accrediting body is aware that individually, the colleges cannot financially survive.
“While we expected further guidance, we did not expect NEASC to redirect us to consider “candidacy for accreditation”, a new process that will take another five years,” Ojakian said. “The problems that our institutions and students face cannot wait five years. In five years, our institutions will be financially insolvent.”
In the coming days, Ojakian said the Board of Regents will review all options including legislative and accrediting options, a review of tuition rates, and the closing of one or more campuses.