(From The Campus Lantern – December 10th, 2015)
On Wednesday, December 2, the newly elected President of the Board of Regents (BOR), Mark Ojakian, met with twenty Eastern students to discuss the future of the 17 Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU), focusing on Eastern. Dr. Elsa Nunez introduced Mr. Ojakian, “[We are] lucky to have him as the new president of the BOR,” and noted her relief with his stability in the position.
Before delving into any questions, Mr. Ojakian introduced himself to the students in attendance. He previously served as Governor Malloy’s Chief of Staff and worked in the realm of public service and politics for almost two decades. He urged the importance of a liberal arts education, noting that he himself has a Bachelor’s degree in History from Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. With a sincere smile, Mr. Ojakian stated, “The best part of my day is when I meet with students.”
Among one of the most talked about issues at the meeting was the apparent lack of counseling and psychological resources on Eastern’s campus. This semester, representatives from Student Government have been in conversation with students, administrators, and the Counseling and Psychological Services Center (CAPS) staff to discuss possibilities for the future of CAPS. He noted on the importance of counseling, especially for college students, but specified that there is currently no additional money in the system for the resources.
In fact, in response to most of the student’s concerns, Mr. Ojakian reminded the students about the lack of funding that all of the State Universities and Colleges received this year. He proposed to come up with a long-term strategy that would bring additional dollars to the university, possibly talking to politicians about investing more in higher education. He also suggested his interest in reaching out to private businesses to build partnerships with the CSCU system. Mr. Ojakian also hopes to create a system-wide approach that makes it easier for students to advocate on behalf on institutions, specifically to their legislatures, an initiative that the new legislative director will assist him in.
When asked what kind of initiatives he has planned to benefit the students, Mr. Ojakian admitted that he does not have any definite plans yet since he has only been the BOR President for two months. However, he did mention the importance of access and affordability, support for nontraditional and undocumented students, and eliminating barriers to success.
“We all need to take a deep breath and start over with a new leader and with the presidents of the universities,” he stated.
There are speculations floating around as to the specificity of the BOR’s current contract negotiations with the faculty and staff unions. Mr. Ojakian stated that he is “not in favor of moving programs from one institution to another” and that he is “not looking to eliminate faculty, to eliminate tenure, or to eliminate professional development.”
When asked specific questions, however, his ambiguity was made apparent. One student directly asked, “Are teachers going to be moved from campus to campus without their consent?” Mr. Ojakian responded, “I don’t negotiate in public; that’s my rule.” He noted how important it is to talk about having flexibility and moving resources.
After his hour-long meeting with Eastern students, Mr. Ojakian moved from the small meeting room in the Student Center to the Betty Tipton Room, which was filled with over 150 members of Eastern’s faculty and staff who were waiting for the question and answer session with the President. When introducing himself to this crowd, he focused on his experience and professionalism in working in the government. Mr. Ojakian made it clear that he has connections with folks in the labor committee and the general assembly.
Mr. Ojakian admitted that union contract negotiations “got off to a bumpy start” due to the transition in leadership and people feeling a lack of respect from previous leaders in the system. He noted that he values staff and faculty greatly, and stated that he wants to have a fair contract. He declared, “Proposals are meant to start a discussion, not to be an end all be all.”
The previous BOR president, Dr. Gregory Gray, resigned last December after his leadership received votes of no confidence from the four Connecticut State Universities. There is a historical tension between the CSU faculty and staff and the BOR, and Mr. Ojakian hopes to “talk to each other, not at each other, and move forward to create the best educational opportunities that we can.”