CSCU “Students First” Consolidation is a Mistake

Testimony to the CSCU Board of Regents, December 14, 2017. 

I am Louise Williams, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University and President of the CCSU AAUP. As a teacher who is in the middle of grading final term papers, I have to urge you not to vote for Students First.  I would give it a failing grade for the weakness of its research. This grade is based on my reading of some serious studies, published just this year, about higher education mergers. I learned some interesting things.

Did you know that those institutions, which merged with the purpose of reducing spending through “economies of scale,” have seen a 7% increase in tuition and fees.  Are you willing to be responsible for students paying more? Here’s another interesting fact.  Less than 20 to 50% of mergers in higher education succeed.  Are you aware that Students First has up to an 80% chance of failure?

This fact comes from a report by the TIAA Institute, which is intended to warn about what might lead to the failure of a merger.  One warning sign is if “cost savings” are the primary reason for the merger. This is because people who advocate mergers tend to “to inflate estimates of benefits and underestimate transaction costs.” Savings, especially from reductions in administrative staff, are actually relatively small, according to TIAA, and are “hardly transformative.” And they are often eaten up by the many hidden costs of mergers.  In fact, the report recommends putting aside extra money up front to cover those costs.

Another indication of failure is when a merger is done by fiat, without careful, “bidirectional communication” or really active engagement of stakeholders. The report warns to keep in mind what George Bernard Shaw said:  “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Just because President Ojakian thinks that he has communicated sufficiently with us does not mean that he really has.  You can chose to believe him, but if he is wrong, this merger is likely to fail.

On the other hand, a real indicator of success, according to this report, is when there is a compelling long-term vision “of a future state that is far better than the current state.”  For example, if there is clear evidence that the combined institution will be greater than the separate ones – that it will result in unique and better quality programs, a higher national ranking a more diverse student body increased responsiveness to community needs — then there is more likelihood of success.

I do not see this positive, future-thinking vision in Students First. Rather all I hear is doom and gloom and threats; if we don’t do it we cannot survive, community colleges will be closed.  This negativity will not galvanize people to support the plan.

Perhaps the problem is that the merger and centralization model is inappropriate for Connecticut.  There are other more creative ways to reorganize a university system.  As yet another study notes, joint ventures with resource sharing can achieve economies of scale without the significant upfront investment and disruption of full mergers.

One such joint venture, which I and others have mention to President Ojakian is a truly regional system where each of the four CSU universities helps administer 3 or 4 satellite community colleges, and they work together to serve the unique needs of the local communities and businesses. This can be done without the expense of a formal merger.  And it is a creative and positive plan.

Have you researched this option? If not, I urge you not vote for this merger.  Do not get an F.  Do not waste the money of taxpayers of Connecticut on a failure.  Go back to the drawing board, do your research, and think of a better vision for public higher education in Connecticut that we all can support.

References:

Russell, Lauren. “Market Power Effects of College and University Mergers,” January 17, 2017.

Azziz, R., Hentschke, G.C., Jacobs, B.C., Jacobs, L.A., Ladd, H. (2017). Mergers in higher education: A proactive strategy to a better future? New York, NY: TIAA Institute.

Martin, James and Samels, James E. “Partnerships, Mergers, and the Consolidation of American Higher Education,” www.higheredjobs.com.

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