After 41 years in public service to the State of Connecticut, Mark Ojakian announced today that he will retire from his role as president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system at the end of 2020.
“When I look at what I’ve accomplished and when I look at the team that is in place now, I see an incredibly strong and committed board of regents and a team that will be able to operate once I’m gone,” Ojakian said in an interview with CT Examiner shortly after the official announcement was made. “I wanted to leave on a high note and be able to pass on the baton and this feels like the right time.”
Although COVID-19 certainly made his final year as a state employee different than he anticipated, Ojakian said the pandemic had no effect on his decision to retire.
“I had made the decision and talked to my board about my plans before COVID hit,” he said. “I wanted to wait to announce my departure until we met with the accreditors in June and until all institutions in my system had submitted their reopen plans, because that was a responsibility I took seriously.”
Looking back over his five years as president, Ojakian said he is most proud of the “Students First” consolidation of the community colleges which he spearheaded and is now well on its way to completion.
“This final semester I want to continue to move the consolidation effort forward and to continue to work with faculty and staff on campuses to align curriculum,” he said. “My goal has been to improve the success rates of our students and make sure to reduce the equity gap between the white and non-white students. That’s what this project will do.”
In addition to Students First, Ojakian said he was proud of the UPass bus program which has helped many students get to classes without the financial burden of a city bus pass. This semester the UPass will be offered to all students for free, instead of the usual $20 charge, to help those disadvantaged by the pandemic.
Most of all, Ojakian said, he wants to make sure that the mark he leaves on all 16 physical campuses is one of social justice. “I want to leave a legacy of not only racial and social justice, but also one where we do what we can do to protect the most disenfranchised students.”
This fall, Ojakian said, that will include adding more mental health services online for students and will make food insecurity a priority.
Ojakian also recognized that he will be leaving the universities in dire financial straits as the full impact from the COVID-19 policies are still unclear. This fall he expects to see about a 10 percent reduction in the overall student body at the four state universities and potentially more than that at the community colleges.
“We had a difficult financial situation before COVID and it has only gotten worse… I won’t know until the beginning of September what the full extent will be,” Ojakian said. “People are anxious and even though the Governor has done an incredible job in reopening and keeping the state safe, we will see a reduction.”
As the semester begins, Ojakian said he is cautiously optimistic that the universities and colleges will be able maintain in-person education until the Thanksgiving break.
“We have in place very strong reopening plans and are as ready as you can be in an unknown era,” he said. “Our plans are very robust and include how we will stagger move-ins, mitigate the spread, contain positive cases and how each institution will shut down if need be.”
Some questions have been raised regarding the differing testing procedures between state universities and colleges and the University of Connecticut and the private colleges, but Ojakian said that the CSCU plan comes directly from the Department of Public Health and is already approved, while many others are still in the revision phase.
“Testing is just one tool in the tool box. Clearly the physical distancing, mask wearing, contact tracing are all as, if not more, important,” he said.
Part of the difference, Ojakian said, is due to the number of in-state versus out-of-state students. He said that because state colleges and universities enrolled very few out-of-state and international students, the same rate of testing was not required.
“I recognize that there is anxiety everywhere,” he said. “I want to underscore the importance to students of adhering to these protocols and that they have a social responsibility to protect themselves and others by adhering to these protocols.”
Ojakian said that the success of in-person education could rest on the shoulders of students and their cooperation with precautions put in place.
As he prepares to leave Ojakian said he is going to miss the interactions with the students most of all.
Before Ojakian was appointed president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, he served as chief of staff in the Governor’s Office. His time in government included several crises, including Hurricanes Sandy, Irene and the school shooting at Sandy Hook.
“Mark Ojakian has been a dedicated public servant in Connecticut for more than 40 years. He is as intelligent and knowledgeable about the workings of government as anyone. I have come to rely on his counsel and appreciate his friendship,” said Gov. Ned Lamont in a press release sent hours after Ojakian’s announcement. “Over the past five years, Mark brought stability to a system that was in turmoil. He recognized that public higher education represents not just an opportunity for individuals to expand their knowledge and improve their lives, but a critical component of the state’s long-term workforce development strategy. He refocused the CSCU system to put the needs of students at the forefront, and our public colleges and universities are in a much better position because of his leadership.”