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Mark Ojakian – State of the System Address Board of Regents Meeting – September 20, 2018

It’s been three years since I became President of CSCU, and in that time, we have witnessed a sea of changes in our institutions, our state, and our country.

It’s been three years since I became President of CSCU, and in that time, we have witnessed a sea of changes in our institutions, our state, and our country. CSCU continues to adapt to those changes, because of our incredibly dynamic students, dedicated faculty and staff, visionary campus leaders, and our committed board members.

These last three years have taught me so much about Connecticut, the students we educate, and the communities we serve. As we embark on a new academic year, I want to share a few of my observations about where we came from, and where we will go into the future.

Three years ago, our system was facing serious challenges with few solutions in sight. We had a structural deficit that needed focused strategic thinking to solve. We had a crisis of confidence by policymakers and key community stakeholders. And fundamentally we were not acting as a system, but rather as a fractured group of institutions under a single board.

Today, because of our combined efforts, I believe we are more stable than we were three years ago, and the role we play in shaping the future of Connecticut is more visible. We don’t sit on the sidelines as the important decisions facing our state are made. When the General Assembly was debating important issues like affirmative consent, institutional aide to undocumented students, or free college, we were there advocating on behalf of all of our students. At the same time our students have been our strongest and most compelling advocates in these important policy debates, clearly showing legislators how their lives are impacted by the decisions they make.

When the state’s budget crisis began to impact our own budgets, we didn’t just advocate for more funding and complain, we came up with solutions. Rather than choose to raise tuition and close campuses or satellites to make up the difference, we launched Students First, to make sure that our institutions are sustainable, resilient, and responsive to students’ needs into the future. Access and affordability remain paramount to our mission, and thus we cannot continue to solve our budget problems on the backs of students or their families.

As enrollment challenges have hit nearly every institution in our system, we have:

  • Worked to coordinate our enrollment and marketing strategies across the system.
  • Worked with CPTV to produce a documentary (“College Bound”) and supporting marketing materials which showcase every CSCU institution.
  • Launched a summer college marketing campaign with billboards visible across the state, radio spots and print ads, along with heavy social media placements. 
  • Explored ways to attract nontraditional students like adult learners by offering more flexible schedules.
  • We institutionalized our partnership with the Department of Social Services and we are now the first community college system in the country to provide workforce education to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients.
  • Improved outreach to groups of high school counselors and other K12 groups across the state.

It can be hard to keep track of everything we have done in the last few years. These are just a few examples of the ways we help our students and our communities thrive. But it indicates what we can accomplish together to help foster student success, and to make our campuses a home for everyone. 

In the process, CSCU has become more flexible. We meet our students wherever they call home in Connecticut, and wherever they are in their lives. We are ready when they are, wherever they are.

Our campuses are public spaces that belong to their local communities. Our institutions cultivate free speech, creativity, innovation, cultural differences and sometimes the intellectual disruption needed for individuals to evolve and grow.

When Washington rescinded federal protections allowing transgender students to use public facilities that matched their gender identity, our Board of Regents immediately adopted a new policy that promotes students’ ability to identify themselves by their preferred name on their student IDs, and ensures access to facilities based on that identity.

At the request of the SAC, we created a task force on diversity and we will be hosting the first system-wide PRIDE conference on October 13th at Middlesex.

When Washington provided the opportunity to help educate our incarcerated residents, CSCU jumped at the chance to address a critical need in our communities. We launched our Second Chance Pell Program at four community colleges, offering eligible inmates the opportunity to pursue a postsecondary degree, giving people a second chance to break the cycle of incarceration and rejoin their communities, rebuilding a new life for themselves and their families. To date, we have helped 962 of these students pursue a postsecondary education.

When undocumented immigrants were locked out of access to higher education in their own states, we partnered with TheDream.US to support “Opportunity Scholars”.  This successful program afforded students the ability to pursue a quality education at Eastern, as well as the scholarship opportunities for our own undocumented students. We became the first state and first system to embark on this program.

And we have been responsive to the state’s employers, working to identify their needs and preparing pipelines of students to join the workforce. When the state’s manufacturers announced the need for tens of thousands of new highly skilled employees in the coming years CSCU stepped in and expanded our advanced manufacturing program to 8 campuses across the system, more than tripling our previous capacity. We expanded a partnership with the Connecticut Technical High School System to offer manufacturing classes in some of their schools to their students, and the public at large.  We also established an MOU with The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) and created the “Genomics Workforce Institute” to train and prepare students for careers in bioscience and biotechnology.

We are pursuing creative ways to address issues that face our students and our institutions.  

When we heard repeatedly from our students that transportation and the costs of textbooks were their two biggest concerns, we took concrete action to address them:

  • We collaborated with the State Department of Transportation to offer the UPass program, giving CSCU students unlimited public transportation for one year for $40. For the current semester, we have made 68,000 passes available to our students at all the participating institutions.
  • We negotiated a new contract for our bookstores to reduce the cost of books for students, and promoted the use of Open Education Resources (OER). As a result, our students have saved more than $4 million dollars in textbook costs in one year while, over the past 4 years, our faculty has saved over 14,000 students more than $1.5 million through OER. 

To address the other personal challenges associated with pursuing an education, we are establishing a single point of contact at each campus to ensure students know how to access needed supports like food and housing while leveraging the services of federal, state, local and nonprofit agencies. We are working with foundation leaders who support early childhood education to assess our current services and develop plans to create, expand and sustain childcare centers on our campuses.

In addition, there is a growing concern both nationally, and within the CSCU system, about the mental health needs of students. We have a moral obligation to provide better behavioral health services to our students and our campuses.  We must, and will, do more.

We are building an Institutional Equity office to provide system-wide support to campuses on equity and discrimination matters, and to and ensure consistent prevention, investigation and enforcement of matters brought to the office.  This month the Office of Violence against Women renewed our $750,000 federal Safe and Friendly Environment (SAFE) grant. We are the largest consortium to receive the grant to date.  New funding will increase and strengthen all our efforts on sexual violence prevention across all 17 campuses including bystander intervention and training for faculty and staff.

We made transfer among our institutions more seamless and straightforward for students by significantly expanding CSCU’s Transfer Articulation Program (TAP). Community college students can complete associate degree programs that transfer without hassle to all CSCU universities and Charter Oak offering their major, without losing any credits. Pathways are now available in 26 major areas of study, with over 3,200 students enrolled in these pathways as of the Spring 2018 semester.

We are also working across our colleges and universities to increase enrollment and retention.  Southern and Gateway and Housatonic have launched the “A to B” program to encourage students not yet ready for the university to start their education with the colleges and move seamlessly to SCSU after they complete their associate’s degree.  Southern and the colleges will jointly provide students with the advising they need to succeed on their educational path.  The other CSUs are now working with nearby community colleges to launch similar partnerships.

Our CSCU Student Success Center launched the Guided Pathways initiative, part of a national movement to redesign college practice and policy to help students efficiently earn credentials, transfer, and attain jobs with value in the labor market.  Similar efforts in other states have also led to dramatic increases in college completion rates. In the near future, we will also develop a single application for students applying to any CSCU institution and a consistent website for all 12 campuses.  We will also continue to promote the “15 to Finish” campaign.

Starting this spring, all 12 community colleges will join the Achieving the Dream, a national network which comprises 200 colleges in 40 states that share student-centered best practices and industry expertise. The CSCU partnership with Achieving the Dream will focus on local integration of Guided Pathways.  

Thanks to faculty and staff who gave up a part of their summer, we are aligning curriculum across the 12 colleges and developing a common General Education core for colleges. This is a crucial first step in the alignment process, and in the realization of Students First. We had an opportunity just last week to brief Dr. Barbara Brittingham on our progress and will continue to keep the Commission informed as we move forward with the Students First initiative including hiring the Regional Presidents and Campus CEOs as part of the new leadership structure.

At a time when people continue to question the value of higher education, we must continue these critical initiatives and make the case to our students and our communities that CSCU is the path to the future our students deserve.  We know this is true, because we see how the power of our public higher education system transforms lives and communities, every day.

CSCU is an investment that delivers. An investment that is worth it.

The value of public higher education will be at the center of any discussion about the future of our state and our country.  As crushing student debt continues to hurt Connecticut families, access to an affordable, high quality education will emerge as the essential investment for our state and its residents. We must continue our momentum and move forward.

In January 2019, we will have a new Governor with a new administration, and new leadership in the legislature. Candidates from across the political spectrum have talked about public higher education as a way to provide opportunity to our residents and help businesses grow. 

We have embarked upon a bold path to highlight the lasting benefits we deliver to Connecticut. Right now, leaders on all campuses are compiling a set of ideas to present a vision for the future of CSCU. We must be courageous and bold in advocating for investments the next administration must make to support our system. This will help us create a vision for CSCU, not for the next biennium, but for the next decade to come.

The CSCU system contributes a significant amount to the state of Connecticut. Our students form the backbone of the state’s economy. They are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and even grandparents from all corners of the state.  Our alumni occupy positions and professions of all types, including mayors, legislators, corporate executives, engineers, inventors and First Responders.

All of us who have the honor and the pleasure to serve the CSCU communities understand the impact we make, but too often we find it difficult to quantify this impact for policymakers and community stakeholders. So, to help make the case for investing in our students and our institutions, we have commissioned, for the first time in CSCU’s existence, a system-wide economic impact study.

We are committed to remaining an institution of higher education that students can afford. At the same time, we need to accelerate our efforts to meet workforce demands and ensure our students are able to compete in today’s job market.

We are committed to identifying more resources on campus so our students receive the advice and guidance they need, both academically and personally.  As policymakers talk about free college models, we must make sure they include adequate funding for support services, particularly academic advisors that are the key to ensuring student success.

If CSCU is to remain accessible and affordable to all Connecticut residents, we must talk about new tuition and financial aid policies that can help prevent increasing costs and budget cuts from being thrown onto the backs of students.

We’ll continue to advocate and fight for our students as we have done over the last three years so that state financial aid is not only not decreased, but actually increased so that we continue to produce an educated population and a trained workforce for the future ahead of all of us.

As we face a new year, a new administration, and new challenges, the state of CSCU is strong. And it will get stronger as we continue to work together. While we have challenges and a lot of work to do over the next few years, we have built a strong foundation for our future.

We must remain bold in addressing the challenges we know we will face as we move into the future. Connecticut families, local businesses and most importantly our students are counting on us.

We will continue to be an example of What works in Connecticut.


For more information, please contact:
Leigh Appleby
860-723-0617
applebyl@ct.edu