Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has offered his full support to an ambitious plan presented by University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst for a $2.1 billion investment, which will expand programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, result in the hiring of hundreds of new faculty and increase significantly student enrollment at UConn's Stamford campus. The public and the General Assembly, however, should raise questions regarding the project's effect on Connecticut's other public higher education institutions.
When asked to justify the UConn investment in this program, known as STEM, without corresponding support for the state universities and community colleges, Gov. Malloy simply responded, "They asked." This answer might be sufficient for a short-term request over a single budget cycle, but not for a project of this scope that will alter the shape of public higher education in Connecticut for a generation.
The new consolidated system of Eastern, Central, Southern and Western Connecticut state universities, 12 community colleges and Charter Oak State College that the governor created is hardly in a position to "ask." The abrupt resignations in a scandal last fall of its president and executive vice president left the system rudderless in a very challenging budgetary climate.
Across the 17 campuses that serve nearly 100,000 students and employ more than 5,000 faculty, there are clear signs of a system under financial stress. Most of the 47 new faculty positions momentarily gained from savings in the consolidation of the systems evaporated. Existing full-time faculty positions are being lost or left unfilled. Course offerings are being reduced with significant reductions in expenditures for part-time faculty. Local administrations are exerting pressure to increase class sizes. Operating budgets are being sharply reduced. Some programs may be eliminated. These reductions will likely make it more difficult for students to get the classes they need to complete their degree requirements in a timely manner.
This sharp erosion in educational value is happening at the same time that its students are rightly protesting increases in their tuition and fees.
Even before the current $2.1 billion budget request, this trend in disproportionate state support was already underway. UConn is still completing the hiring of hundreds of new faculty members from its previous expansion plan, while the newly consolidated state universities and community colleges are under a hiring freeze and lost many positions in last year's budget rescission. So in the midst of the state system's leadership vacuum, UConn's new proposal comes not only before the paint has dried from its previous expansion, but before the dry wall has even been hung.
The state universities and community colleges merit equal support. They play vital roles in the well-being of the state. More than 90 percent of their students are Connecticut residents and more than 90 percent of their graduates continue to live and to work in the state after graduation. Nearly half of the students in the system are the first generation in their families to attend college. For many, the state universities and community colleges represent their only chance for a quality, post-secondary education.
Overall Connecticut is a wealthy state, but it is also among the most unequal. If we are to address that inequity, reduce the achievement gap, and expand opportunities for all citizens, the state universities and community colleges need their own visionary plan to address the challenges ahead. The state should not crowd out any opportunity to do so, especially before new college and university system even has its own permanent president and leadership voice.
An educated citizenry is essential to expand opportunities, pursue innovations, enhance competitiveness, increase entrepreneurialism, attract corporate investment, and enrich the social, cultural and political life of the state. The state, its citizens, and the next generation will benefit from a balanced approach to public investment in higher education.
Stephen Adair is a professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Central Connecticut State University and is the vice chairman of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun