System Error for Connecticut’s Community College Consolidation

Promising, but failing, to put students first.
By Colena Sesanker

image of screen with a red exclamation point inside a red triangle, inside a blue circle, with SYSTEM ERROR in red below

In 2017, the Board of Regents (BOR) for Higher Education in Connecticut adopted the “Students First” consolidation plan. The administration presented this plan as a money-saving project aimed at streamlining back-office functions and achieving economies of scale by centralizing certain operations of Connecticut’s twelve community colleges. It sought to anticipate demographic trends predicted to result in fewer traditional college-aged residents in future years and to capitalize on what has come to be known as a “silver tsunami” of retirements across all areas of state service. From the beginning, it was obvious that the board and upper administration intended the centralization and streamlining to allow Connecticut’s system of public higher education to carry on with a much smaller workforce after the wave of retirements. They claimed that no layoffs would be necessary—just “natural” attrition—and that without this move, closing one or two community colleges would be inevitable.

Mark Ojakian—then president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU), a system of seventeen public colleges and universities, including the twelve open-enrollment community colleges—introduced this plan and the false choice between closure of colleges and consolidation. Ojakian had a master’s degree in international relations and no prior professional experience in higher education before his appointment in 2015, but he clearly knew his way around politics. Following the 2011 merger of the seventeen CSCU institutions into one system, the system had suffered through a series of short-lived and scandal-ridden presidencies. Governor Dannel Malloy simply installed Ojakian, his chief of staff, as interim president in 2015 and never conducted a search for a permanent successor.

Ojakian remained as president until he was eligible for retirement with full benefits in January 2021, even though in 2019 both he and the Students First plan received votes of no confidence from governance bodies at twelve of the colleges and universities in the system. He currently advertises himself as a consultant to governments, corporations, and institutions, including higher education. Meanwhile, Dannel Malloy has received his fourth no-confidence vote in his leadership as chancellor of the University of Maine System, a position he’s held since he left office in Connecticut in 2019. And the current Connecticut governor, Ned Lamont, has demonstrated no understanding of, nor interest in, the details of the consolidation except to protect its progress while celebrating workforce and certificate partnerships with the likes of Google and Amazon.

In states across this country, public higher education is being fundamentally transformed as governments like Connecticut’s withdraw public support for institutions and not only accept but participate in their exploitation by private interests. State governments have abandoned the campuses, leaving them as assets to be pillaged, instead of bolstering them as a public resource. What should be a public good is being transformed into a commodity—in our case, a cheapened commodity.

Although the consolidation plan was sold as a back-office reorganization, it calls for a far more expansive and consequential transformation within the CSCU system. Most significant, it aims (1) to close all twelve independently accredited community colleges in the system and reopen them as branches of a consolidated, statewide, megacollege over five years and (2) to defer the convening of any shared governance bodies until this megacollege opens. The plan was modified to establish governance structures one year earlier than planned, in fall 2022, but only after the development of all the courses and programs in its catalog. Such goals reflect a tragic absurdity: we have been “saved” from the threat of closure of one or two community colleges by the effective closure of all twelve.

CSCU community members delivered a petition with 1,400 signatures opposing the consolidation to system leadership a few months before the vote of no confidence in Ojakian, Students First, and the BOR. All five unions in the system, including the AAUP faculty union for the system’s four Connecticut State Universities, issued a joint statement of unity in opposition to the consolidation. Eleven of the twelve colleges’ governance bodies issued resolutions of nonparticipation, explaining that their good-faith efforts had not been met with genuine inclusion in the process. When members of the working group tasked with designing a shared governance model for the future megacollege proposed that shared governance should be in place prior to decisions about curriculum and policies, the provost invited them to resign, and the majority of the group took the provost up on her invitation. There were multiple public comments addressed to our regional accreditor, statements of opposition and of caution from the Faculty Advisory Committee to the BOR, articles opposing the plan, campus forums, and testimony before the legislature. But the consolidation plods on.

Students First?

Funding for Connecticut’s public colleges and universities, as for the majority of states across the country, has not returned to pre-2008 levels. As articles by Jill Penn and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer in this issue of Academe highlight, students bear an ever-increasing share of the cost burden for our institutions. The viability of our colleges and universities is therefore especially sensitive to fluctuations in enrollment—more so than any public good should be. As a result, upper administration and admissions offices have shifted into a constant crisis mode regarding enrollment. This approach is common to corporate financial models and their constant demands for austerity, which François Furstenberg and Naveeda Khan discuss in their article for this issue of Academe and which Matthew Hendricks will discuss in a forthcoming online supplement to the issue. Unsurprisingly, the first position filled for Connecticut’s Students First plan was an enrollment manager.

Despite their emphasis on the imperative to enroll and retain more students, these institutions don’t adequately serve the students they already have. The delayed implementation of a shared governance structure removed decision-making about curriculum from faculty control, an outcome that upper administration has sought for many years. The administrators of the new system then made the unilateral decision to eliminate all developmental and remedial math and English courses by fall 2023, leaving students and faculty to “volunteer” for additional help, without any addition funding. Students at our open-enrollment community colleges—especially those from underresourced K–12 school districts—depend on these courses to succeed in college, but this decision leaves them in the dust. California’s Assembly Bill 705, the model for Connecticut administrators, has had exactly that effect—foreseen by faculty, whose warnings administrators and legislators ignored—since its implementation in January 2018.

We have passed the point when minor adjustments, background procedural changes, and even heroic efforts by those on the front lines might have saved public education from abandonment by our governments. This is a national problem, and one that manifests in a variety of ways. As Shermer’s work makes clear, our colleges and universities—even the public ones—are producing a generation of indentured workers. Increasing institutional debt, a key way that schools compensate for the loss of public funding, affects the governance and priorities of our institutions. The need to constantly maintain or increase enrollments and secure outside funding to stay afloat means that institutions may need to center not only the demands of Wall Street but also the pet projects and political agendas of grant funders, as UnKoch My Campus activists will discuss in the forthcoming online supplement to this issue of Academe. This crisis of disinvestment places our educational mission and learning priorities at odds with the sources of revenue. The result is a contradictory stew of efforts that increasingly serves the needs of private industry instead of the needs of students. The CSCU system is one example of such dysfunction.

Connecticut’s approach to public education, particularly our open-enrollment community colleges, is especially disappointing. Connecticut is among the wealthiest states in the country and well-placed to invest in a well-educated populace. We could choose to commit to education as a public good. Moreover, many Connecticut educators and residents are intensely aware of the inequities in our K–12 system, with the city of Hartford offering a case study: in 2020, fewer than 50 percent of Hartford students had access to a nonsegregated school even after the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill court ruling that required efforts to desegregate the city’s schools. One would expect that such failures in public education would have caused our legislature to feel the weight of the responsibility to address discrepancies and equalize opportunity at every level.

A plan called Students First should center student needs. Yet, as with many of the upper administration slogans highlighted in this issue of Academe, this name obscures and evades more than it illuminates. In reality, the BOR continues to raise tuition at the system’s colleges and universities—even while the state puzzles over how to reckon with the prospect of an overflowing rainy day fund. The system continued to hire vice presidents to fill the rosters of entirely new levels of administration for the community colleges while further degrading the contracts of the most precarious frontline workers on whom our students rely.

It should be obvious that tuition hikes and the elimination of developmental and remedial courses potentially disadvantage or exclude the very students that open-enrollment institutions are uniquely placed to serve. It should also be obvious that the board’s proposal to lay off graduate student workers in the system’s universities at the height of the pandemic did not prioritize the needs of students. One does not combat structural inequity by diverting funding from colleges, leaving them perilously understaffed, while appointing a slew of administrators who need never set foot in a building that houses students. Yet when it became evident that the consolidation was costing tens of millions of dollars a year instead of producing the promised savings, the system’s leadership pivoted to a new narrative: consolidation in the form of the Students First plan is necessary to achieve educational equity. The reality, however, is that the CSCU system is accelerating down a path of racialized austerity that exacerbates existing racial and socioeconomic inequities.

Shrinking Resources amid Growing Diversity

The number of students of color in the colleges that now constitute the CSCU system doubled between 2003 and 2013. In the CT Mirror, Patrick Sullivan has carefully detailed the correlation between an overreliance on undersupported, underpaid adjunct faculty and the percentage of students of color in Connecticut’s public higher education institutions. Commenting on data from University of Connecticut, Eastern Connecticut State University, and Manchester Community College, he observes that “as our Hispanic/Latino and Black student population increases from 16% to 22% to 41%, the utilization of part-time, non-tenure track faculty similarly increases from 33% to 59% to 78%.” Systemwide, the same correlation is evident as the number of nonwhite students has grown to constitute a majority.

Yet the state’s share of funding for the colleges and universities, declining steadily since the late 1980s, began a steeper decline around 2008 and has not recovered. By 2011, the merged CSCU system was born, setting the stage for this latest consolidation after cycling through multiple failed plans for extreme restructuring and five presidents in its first six years. As the percentage of students of color continues to grow, the BOR has invested tens upon tens of millions of public dollars intended for the community colleges into the project of reducing offerings to the portion of Connecticut’s residents who could benefit the most from our system—and who pay the lion’s share of state taxes. Managers claim that savings will result from this investment strategy, which was never explicitly approved through a transparent shared governance process, but this lie seems obvious to anyone who reads CSCU’s financial documents.

As was the case with the austerity measures that Penn discusses in her article on the University System of Georgia, much-vaunted “savings” were all due to attrition, understaffing and overworking academic departments, and a subsequent reduction in services, rather than to the “innovation” of consolidation. Instead, we have been supporting the administration of a thirteenth college that doesn’t yet exist to the tune of between $10–13 million per year in salaries alone, even though the consolidation proposal estimated this cost would be less than $2 million over five years. Because no money was allocated for the transition, much of this spending is being extracted from a block grant to the twelve colleges covering a percentage of college expenses that were already historically underfunded.

Austerity-driven “reform” has not only reduced resources and increased costs to students, it has also changed the nature of our institutions and the criteria for judging them. We are left with tracking key performance indicators that aren’t appropriate for our student body—forcing completion of college-level English and math courses in a student’s first year or incentivizing full-time enrollment that is inappropriate or impossible for our working and nontraditional students. We have firsthand knowledge of the cruelty of requiring that every student catch up in one or two semesters regardless of the level at which they start, and of demanding that students with multiple financial and personal obligations enroll full-time. Administrative manipulation of these data points involves replacing our data sets—that is, our current students—with other students who are “a better fit” rather than meeting the needs of our existing student body to ensure their success. In Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education, Noliwe Rooks argues that prioritization of the projects of elite outsiders at the expense of those already inside the system is something that has long plagued education systems that primarily serve people of color. These externally imposed “reforms” depend on exploitative labor models—particularly adjunct employment—and the disempowerment of those whose primary job activities involve actual students, as Connecticut community colleges’ gutted student services and obstructed shared governance attest.

Despite these disturbing trends, administrators have celebrated the future consolidated megacollege as “antiracist.” Yet the only listing in the college’s catalog at the time was a “first-year experience” course that perverted and misquoted the work of Laura Rendon and Amaury Nora to declare that college success required “students to model new behaviors” rooted in “white middle-class norms.” Though Rendon and Nora have pointed out this error, CSCU has yet to acknowledge it. An elite class of administrators and consultants is thus camouflaging the capture of public dollars through their appropriation of the terms equity and antiracism in the service of nonsensical branding from which one might rightly recoil: "equity” as withdrawal of instructional and support resources from our most vulnerable students; “antiracism” as assimilation.

Changing the Game

The BOR’s plan for consolidation, then, has created a self-justifying structure that is unresponsive to the people who inhabit it and for whom it is designed; it declares the importance of data but is impervious to evidence. “Efficiencies” are found in multistep, bureaucratic processes of a centralized system that is opaque to most who must use it. “Minimizing costs” consists of creating a centralized structure through which one can easily outsource the labor and ideas that compose our colleges, although we know—from a long history of outsourcing, mergers, and privatization—that it is unlikely to save money.

There has, at the same time, been an increase in figureheads in the CSCU system from historically underrepresented groups—appointments that administrators have highlighted and celebrated—but this, alone, is no triumph. The problem with structural injustice is that, if the structure is restrictive enough, it may simply not matter who inhabits what role. Our structural deficits are deeply entrenched—decades, if not centuries, in the making—and supported by the network of power that makes the rise of new leaders possible. To the extent that system executives are contracted at will, at the discretion of the established power structures; to the extent that they are not ultimately accountable to the people who inhabit the spaces they lead; and to the extent that there is no mandate from below for the requisite structural change, executives simply cannot be understood as representing the perspective of the demographic groups to which they belong. They are, after all, exceptional.

College educators, generally, face this same structural obstacle. Academia has historically been the domain of the privileged few, relative to almost all demographic categories. What we are reflecting on here is the failure, thus far, of our best efforts to democratize it. The goal is not diversity and inclusion in a system that serves upper administrators and investors over students. We want justice for students, faculty, and staff with budget transparency, fair labor, equitable access, and substantial budgetary commitments to learning and education for all students. Without funding and local control over allocations and curriculum, the rest is just spin.

This is a time when many colleges are celebrating diversity and equity without ever engaging in imagining what it would mean to exhibit true, substantive diversity. We celebrate as if we have won the war without ever engaging in struggle—without, in fact, even locating the ground on which that struggle might rightly take place. Indeed, at precisely the time we celebrate our aspirations to equity and diversity, we continue to move in the direction of burdening graduates with debt and excluding those who cannot take it on, deferring to the demands of Wall Street rather than to our students’ needs, assigning the majority of our instruction to people who must supplement their teaching income elsewhere or starve, and increasing systemic administrative costs in spite of promises to the contrary, all while professed aspirations toward diversity and equity are not made evident in our curriculum, workforce, governance, or relationships with the community beyond our campuses.

If I have learned anything from collaborating with public higher education workers from across the country over the past few years, it is that none of this is unique. Much of what we experience is eerily similar. Connecticut’s particular consolidation process is more disruptive and ambitious than most, and what we stand to lose is enormous: twelve established community colleges that have long served Connecticut’s students. Our state’s legislature may be particularly impotent in the face of a governor who has chosen to plod along in the path left for him by Governor Malloy without asking any questions. But our story is the logical outcome of what we have all been facing for decades.

Other educators who read this are likely thinking, We know! Same here! We have known for a long time. It becomes increasingly obvious that the solution is not to understand the prevailing power structure, explain it, reason with it (god, no!), or entreat it. The only solution is action that shifts power structures and has hard consequences for upper administrations and boards that refuse to share power. It means exercising shared governance and academic freedom to the fullest extent possible and, when that recourse is unavailable or insufficient, engaging in collective action that opens spaces for new possibilities and negotiation of new dynamics.

The power to shift the system, then, lies not in counting identities of particular individuals but in our tangible commitments and in having the courage to act on them. It requires taking the risk of leaping from the unjust market-produced structure that maintains higher education to something better—and the discipline to build the power structure that might catch us on the other side. To use the terminology of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s recently published Elite Capture, we are in need of constructive politics rather than the politics of deference to those newly included at the same old table. We cannot simply return to past practice because not only did that not save us, it also never served all those it should have served.

In Connecticut, it has been a long fight. It is easy to slip into cynicism: perhaps a system that has historically cultivated elites, relegating others to the underside of capitalism, would rather destroy itself than produce justice. But public education has worked for some nonelite students, and we can widen the net rather than drain the pool. Many of us are exhausted, but I’d like to believe that we are merely catching our breath. I hope that we have the collective vision to recapture our mission and enough courage to take real risks in solidarity with those for and with whom we must struggle to revise the state’s regressive tax structure, which could raise revenue not only to fund public education at all levels and reduce overreliance on contingent work but also to fund the social safety nets and services that make it possible for students to benefit from higher education in the first place. The consolidation created a vehicle for a top-heavy, corporate-style megainstitution with a logic tending toward privatization, but we must change the terrain to redirect CSCU and cultivate the political power to sustain it. It will be a constant struggle, but we are not alone. We currently fight alongside more than fifty unions, community organizations, and faith groups in a Connecticut coalition called Recovery for All. I would like to believe that, even after decades of the effects of neoliberal sociopathy, we still have it in us.

Colena Sesanker is associate professor of philosophy at Connecticut’s Gateway Community College and is cochair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education in Connecticut.