As State Schools Move Toward Merger, Faculty and Legislators Raise Tough Questions on Finances

Contentious contract negotiations, declining revenue and calls for legislative oversight continue to plague the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system even as federal funding provides some temporary budget relief. 

Last month, the Board of Regents reported a deficit of $58 million shared between the system’s four state universities, 12 community colleges and Charter Oak State College — $22 million for the colleges and $36 million for the universities. The deficit was largely driven by a pandemic-related drop in enrollment.

Meanwhile, the board is in ongoing and contentious negotiations with the faculty union to draw up a new contract. A number of faculty members and union representatives claim publicly that the board’s proposals would undermine academic freedom, strip away research funding and increase course loads. In place of those budget cuts, the union leadership suggests instead that the board halt the ongoing merger of the system’s 12 community colleges. 

At its Thursday meeting, the Board of Regents took an additional step toward the merger, approving the hiring of five CEOs for the community colleges. 

Matt Fleury, chair of the Board of Regents, said in the meeting that the goal of the merger — called “Students First” — was an effort to avoid raising tuition, to increase retention and graduation rates and to improve student equity. Kerry Kelley, the interim CFO for Connecticut State Community College, projected that without the proposed merger, the CSCU system would face a deficit of $43 million, since declining enrollment would not keep up with expenditures. 

“A critical part of the merger is the adoption of Guided Pathways, a suite of policies – most notably a significant investment in advising – to help students navigate the college experience, graduate in a timely manner, and prepare for their next steps,” said Appleby. “It would be cost prohibitive and overly complicated to approach this on a campus-by-campus basis; it requires implementation at scale, as one college.”

Fleury said that the projected $23 million in yearly savings from the consolidation could be invested in student services, including hiring 175 more advisors. He said that the goal was to have one counselor for every 250 students, rather than the current ratio of one counselor for every 750 students. 

Leigh Appleby, director of communications for CSCU, said that the merger would allow students to easily take classes at multiple campuses and improve their student success rates, which he said are some of the lowest in New England. 

“A critical part of the merger is the adoption of Guided Pathways, a suite of policies – most notably a significant investment in advising – to help students navigate the college experience, graduate in a timely manner, and prepare for their next steps,” said Appleby. “It would be cost prohibitive and overly complicated to approach this on a campus-by-campus basis; it requires implementation at scale, as one college.”

Appleby said that the merger had already saved $35 million between 2018 and 2021. 

At the Thursday meeting, David Blitz, professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee of the Board of Regents, praised some of the consolidation that has happened so far — including re-making college presidents into CEOs and creating regional presidents –but Blitz still described the merger as “flawed” and claimed that it had “exceeded its useful lifetime.” 

Blitz, who is also vice-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee, said that the merger risked loss of faculty control over the curriculum, gave too much power to the central office and meant that each of the 12 colleges would no longer be individually accredited.   

“I agree that consolidation is needed, just not the kind envisaged by the plan,” said Blitz. 

The legislature weighs In

State lawmakers have proposed two bills that could give the legislature greater oversight over the college and university system. One would require legislative approval for any mergers or closures of state colleges or universities. The other would require the Board of Regents to include the central office administrative costs as a clear line item in the budget it submits to the legislature. 

Faculty at the colleges and universities came out in strong support of both bills at a public hearing on March 9, saying that the bills would hold the Board of Regents better accountable.. Several faculty members also voiced doubts in testimony concerning the clarity of reports of administrative costs by the Board of Regents.

State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, said that she found the testimony compelling. 

“They all put their heart and soul into their testimony, and for me what stood out was the concern for the students,” said Pavalock-D’Amato. 

Sean Bradbury, senior director of government relations and external affairs for Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, testified that requiring legislative approval for mergers and closures would create “situations of inevitable conflict” and hinder the board’s ability to make fiscally responsible decisions. 

But Pavalock-D’Amato said this assumes that the legislature would never agree to a school closure, which Pavalock-D’Amato said is simply not true. 

State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, said that he remains convinced that this legislation was the best course of action, and he said that there was obvious support among legislators for the bill. 

“I would hate to see this become a political football by getting the legislature involved,” Witkos said in a March 11 meeting of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. 

Haddad said he was concerned about the administration’s inability to reach an agreement with the faculty, and he said he wants to make sure that the Board of Regents takes their concerns seriously. 

But State Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Harwinton, said he worried that the bill could stall the negotiations around the merger, and both he and State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Weston, objected to the idea of the legislature stepping into the Board of Regents’ jurisdiction.

“I would hate to see this become a political football by getting the legislature involved,” Witkos said in a March 11 meeting of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. 

The bill was passed out of committee by a vote of 19-3. Senators Witkos and Haskell and Rep. Christopher Ziogas voted against the bill. 

A fiscal cliff?

In its Thursday meeting, the board also voted to freeze tuition and fees for one year in spite of ongoing concerns about loss of revenue. 

“It is an easy decision in principle, it is very hard in practice,” said Fleury.

At a meeting of the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee on March 10, CSCU CFO Benjamin Barnes said that the board estimated there would be a loss of $6.5 million in revenue for the colleges during the spring semester. But Richard Balducci, chair of the committee, said at a March 25 meeting that the schools expect to receive $350 million in additional federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Under the requirements of the bill, $150 million of that funding must be paid directly to currently enrolled students. 

Barnes said that the college received approximately $54.6 million in the first federal relief package. Half of that money went to students in the form of grants, and the college spent an additional $13 million on the cost of student refunds caused by the pandemic. Barnes said that the colleges planned to use the remaining $13.3 million to pay adjunct faculty members who taught online courses during the fall. 

“Clearly we do not have the income to support our expenditures,” said Pavalock-D’Amato. “Higher ed is going to be taking a hit.”

In the second federal relief package, passed in December, the colleges and universities received another $108.5 million, $27 million of which will be directed toward student financial assistance. The board will use $7 million of the aid for technology and $10 million to reimburse campuses for COVID-related expenses.The remaining $27.8 million is earmarked for operations and student financial assistance next year.

Pavalock-D’Amato expressed concern that the federal funding is leading to a fiscal cliff in 2023 — the year the merger is expected to be completed. 

“Clearly we do not have the income to support our expenditures,” said Pavalock-D’Amato. “Higher ed is going to be taking a hit.”


This story has been edited to clarify comments made by Richard Balducci

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