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Bill O’Connell The ‘One College’ idea takes away who and what community colleges are

December 16, 2018

Congratulations Gov.-elect Lamont, I am confident you will usher in some much-needed changes to our state. God knows, things cannot get a whole lot worse.

I am sure that, given the breakneck speed with which you will enter into this new phase of your life, you cannot respond to any crisis before the governor’s seat has at least gotten warm, but I wanted to communicate with you regarding a troubling initiative that has been several years in the making. This would be the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education’s proposal to create “One College.”

The idea gets legs, loses them, gets new legs, ad nauseum. The newest iteration is to create a Common General Education Core Curriculum. That proposal would almost certainly and completely reduce community colleges to little more than “feeder programs” for the Connecticut State College and Universities System.

A letter distributed recently by Mark Ojakian, President of the Board of Regents states:

“Later today we will be delivering the final version of the white paper to the new administration, the current and incoming members of the General Assembly, and other key stakeholders. The publication titled Access and Opportunity — Moving Connecticut Forward…”

Of the community colleges, the final version says:

“Through unique and comprehensive degree and certificate programs, non-credit lifelong learning opportunities, and job skills training programs, they advance student aspirations to earn career-oriented degrees and certificates and to pursue their further education.”

Please note that this statement says nothing of the intellectual advancements that community college students achieve as a result of the education they receive at community colleges. Instead, it states that community colleges “advance student aspirations to earn career-oriented degrees and certificates and provides those students a pathway to pursue their further education.”

Our function then is to prepare our students for the workplace and to prepare them to pursue “further education.” The note sounded here is that community colleges are little more than “preparation” institutions — an insult to, and violation of, our important missions to educate.

Our college has spent the better part of 25 years building a curriculum that not only fosters and encourages the development of critical thinking skills, but creates students who can sharply question their assumptions and attitudes about the world. This proposal for a watered down core not only violates our respective mission statements; it also abdicates our responsibilities to the communities we serve.

When I was growing up, Community Colleges were “those places” one went when there was nowhere, for either academic or financial reasons, else to go. I do not think we are seen that way anymore (though the myth does continue to live in some quarters). We are vibrant academic Institutions, tasked with educating students in our own unique ways. I chose to teach at a CC, because I believe in its mission. It wasn’t a harbor of last resort for me, and I never saw it that way for my students, either.

The Board Of Regents is attempting to take who we are away from us. Last year, President Ojakian and the Board presented, hastily I might add, a Proposal for “One College.” The proposal was intended to alleviate the budgetary crunch under which our academic institutions currently suffer.

I still cannot, for the life of me, see how it will save money, but that is a discussion for a later date.

Our accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, rejected the proposal. NEASC even said, publicly, that the idea was half-baked and nowhere near being ready for accreditation. NEASC did say it might be a possible option five years from now, provided certain conditions were met. Even then, though, NEASC stated that the five-year plan would be revisited in terms of applying for accreditation. The actual accreditation would be several years after that.

President Ojakian continues to throw himself headlong into the breach. And he has made not so subtle threats that, absent this project, some colleges will have to shutter their doors.

You are on the cusp of enormous responsibilities, Gov. Lamont. This letter might have to go, reluctantly, into a drawer. What I am asking is that Norwalk Community College be allowed to remain an independent institution. We know our academic community, just as other colleges know theirs. We do not fit easily into a one-size-fits-all model. We fit us. And have for some 50 years.

Thank you so much for taking the time (and energy) to read and consider this. I wish you great success in your first term. I think we, all of us, are better off. Enjoy the Holiday Season!

Bill O’Connell is Chair of the English Department at Norwalk Community College.

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