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Editorial Lawmakers talk out of school on consolidation

March 20, 2019

Mark Ojakian’s biggest strategic error may have been dubbing his initiative to consolidate Connecticut’s 12 community colleges as “Students First.”

Even the whisper of rankings reliably sparks competitiveness in some quarters.

Board of Regents First!

No, Taxpayers First!

Wait, Legislators First!

This should not be a spoiler alert: No one likes consolidation. Not even Ojakian, who is under fire as architect of the plan in his role as president of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU). If he had his way, he would surely prefer to keep the colleges whole.

Which is essentially what he’s trying to do. The system’s finances just haven’t been cooperating. As any business professor will tell you, sentiment belongs in the history department.

Ojakian is positioned as the villain but could be painted as the hero trying to prevent the closure of some of the 12 campuses. The obstacle is a financial gap estimated at $57 million.

There’s been an admirable resistance from stakeholders (those would be the educators and students) who protested at the Capitol last week and collected some 1,300 names on a petition.

Now lawmakers are trying to climb to the top of the scrum with proposed bills that would empower them to nix the deal.

Within the fine print is that if the General Assembly failed to act within a year of receiving notice, their silence would be deemed as approval.

We’ve seen this before. The General Assembly has a dismal record of voting on union contracts that were automatically approved after 30 days of legislative ignorance.

Not surprisingly, Ojakian would prefer the lawmakers mind their own business, reasoning that the governor appoints the Board of Regents for Higher Education (which Ojakian heads). He also fears the process becoming politicized.

Both bills won unanimous support in the Higher Education Committee last week.

The first bill, which would enable lawmakers to stop the plan, is evidence that politics is already an obstacle. Giving lawmakers the power to stop the plan is going too far.

The second bill seeks to have the Board of Regents provide quarterly reports to the Higher Education Committee on the status of the proposal. It’s worth further discussion and scrutiny, as it could provide the transparency and data needed to earn more support.

The Board of Regents doesn’t have the power to act cavalierly, as they have to earn approval by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which rejected the last draft of the concept.

Meanwhile, Ojakian and Co. are in the process of hiring three regional presidents to replace individual heads of each college.

The campuses would each retain a chief executive officer, chief financial officer and a chief academic office. More importantly, they retain a campus.

We don’t like consolidation either. But the General Assembly should be looking under other rocks for savings instead of throwing stones at leaders accepting the realities that tough choices have to be made in Connecticut.