Gov. Chris Sununu says New Hampshire must move quickly to “get ahead of the crisis that is coming” to its public university and community college systems.
“Where we are today is where we’ve been for 20 years and it is a dying system,” he said of the current status of the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire. “Both of these systems will fail if some sort of significant change isn’t made.”
“Enrollment continues to decline in both of these systems,” Sununu said. “We still have two of the most expensive systems in the country.”
While praising the quality of both systems as “phenomenal,” Sununu said, the state needs to get ahead of a coming crisis.
“And the crisis that’s coming is not five or 10 years away, it’s two or three years away,” Sununu said.
Speaking with Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board Thursday, Sununu promoted his proposal to merge the state universities and community colleges’ Board of Trustees’ that is now included in the state’s biennial budget.
Sununu announced the plan in his budget address on Feb. 11.
Eleven institutions, including Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth and the University of New Hampshire in Durham, would be impacted by the merger.
Other institutions on the community college side include New Hampshire Technical Institute, Manchester Community College, Nashua Community College, Lakes Region Community College, White Mountains Community College and River Valley Community College. On the university system side, the merger would include Plymouth State University, Keene State College and Granite State College.
For the last 18 months, Sununu said he has been meeting with leaders from both systems to discuss the consolidation.
Why is the merger being proposed? Is it being rushed?
The community college and university systems have “duplicative online learning systems,” Sununu said, that “effectively compete against each other” for funding and for students.
Under one system, branded the “New Hampshire College & University System,” Sununu said each institution will maintain its individual identity and brand, though they’re marketed, managed, programmed and designed for a “seamless transition for the students” between each school.
Education consolidations:NH community colleges signal support for merger with state universities
Under the current models, students wishing to have credits transferred between schools are faced with systems that are “massively confusing and very inefficient,” Sununu said.
Add the pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sununu said, and implementing a new college and university system requires a sense of urgency. He said there’s just no time for a lengthy legislative study.
“Study committees and commissions, that is code word for it’s never going to get done,” Sununu said.
Sununu dismisses ‘serious concerns’ of former trustees: ‘They’re yesterday’s news’
In mid-March, a few days before a legislative study group convened to examine the merger, the governor received public pushback from numerous former trustees of both USNH and CCSNH.
The group of 12 stated their “serious concerns” drafted in a letter, outlining two recommendations for the consolidation, though not before labeling the proposal as a “hasty” move.
“We believe (the) merger of these two boards and governance functions will result in a consolidation that will negatively impact the effectiveness of both of our vital higher education enterprises,” they wrote. “Any consolidation of these two distinctly different educational systems deserves to be examined thoroughly, with all stakeholders involved in the study and development of any recommendations for change.”
Previous story:Reaction to Sununu’s desire to merge NH colleges and universities
The first recommendation calls for the proposal to be entirely removed from the budget bill, HB2 because it is far more than a budget measure. The second recommends a commission be established to “thoroughly study this subject with a charge to report any appropriate legislative initiatives in time for consideration by the 2022 session of the General Court.”
“Public higher education drives the educational, economic and cultural vitality of New Hampshire. The radical changes proposed in House Bill 2 deserve a thorough and comprehensive review, which is owed to our students, citizens and communities,” their letter reads.
The 12 former trustees who signed the letter were Cotton Cleveland, New London; George Epstein, Conway; Betty Hoadley, Concord; Paul J. Holloway, Rye; Andy Lietz, Rye; Lorraine Merrill, Stratham; Carol Perkins, Plymouth; Stephen Reno, Hampton; John Rist, Manchester; Stella Scamman, Stratham; Steve Taylor, Meriden; Jim Yakovakis, York, Maine.
Sununu said Thursday the group’s thinking was dated, countering “they’re not here, they’re not on the front lines and they’re not experiencing what the students are experiencing and what the state is experiencing.”
“To be very frank, they are yesterday’s news,” Sununu said.
Similar ideas from the legislature
Spanning a weeklong period late last month, the state legislature’s Study Group for Post-Secondary Education met to compile a report examining the proposed merger.
The final report featured testimony from several influential state university and community college figures. The six figures included Dr. Donald Birx, president of Plymouth State University; Dr. Susan Huard, the interim chancellor of CCSNH; Dr. Joe Morone, the USNH Board of Trustees Chair; Cathy Provencher, the USNH chief administrative officer and vice chancellor for financial affairs and treasurer; Dr. Ed MacKay, the former chancellor of USNH; and Dr. Barbara Brittingham, president emeritus of the New England Commission of Higher Education.
In the report, more than 40 questions were raised about the merger and subtopics such as governance, affordability, accessibility, visions for state post-secondary education, the institutional mission and vision of the New Hampshire College and University System, the role of the legislature and the merger’s implementation and impact.
The study group recommended the creation of a council, with members from the community college and university sides, as well as outside counsel with experience in other state systems, to form a plan for the merger.
“The study group agrees that sufficient preparation is essential to a successful merger; it is necessary to go slow to get it right and apply care in the approach to evaluate and consider whether a merger of higher education systems can accomplish the desired results,” the report states.
‘If it seems like it’s being rushed a little bit, well, yeah.’
Sununu said there is no time to waste.
“Other states are moving in this type of direction. COVID has accelerated it and if it seems like it’s being rushed a little bit, well, yeah, (it’s) because COVID just accelerated (it). COVID has changed all of our timelines,” he said. “Either we react to that, or we’re going to die on the vine.”
Should HB2 pass the state legislature with Sununu’s proposed higher education merger plan, the New Hampshire College & University System process will begin on July 1 with a merged board of trustees.
The consolidated board would be composed of five board members representing the community college side and five board members coming from the university system side. All board members would be selected by leaders of their respective system, Sununu said.
The governor would add five more people to the board, such as school faculty, lawyers and information technology specialists, to round it out and meet certain evaluation needs. Eight ex-officio members are also slated to be a part of the merged board.
“I think (then you’ve) really ensured having the right skills sets in those rooms and the right representation to be part of that process,” Sununu said. “So that’s all the bill does is say, ‘Let’s start the process.’”
Sununu said he is not prescribing what the system should look like. Once the board members come together, he wants them to take a full year to review the merger, a period where they can bring in extra consultants, as well as school faculty members and students, for extended discussion and input.
“It’d be one thing if I was bringing a plan and saying, ‘This is what it should look like, you have to approve it and on July 1 we’re going forward.’ That is not what we’re doing at all,” Sununu said.
Money is the easy part, Sununu says
Produced by the governor’s office, the Executive Budget Summary, which says the merger focuses “on the student, not the system,” shows a projected decrease in funding under a consolidated board in the upcoming biennial term.
In fiscal year 2022, the summary states $140 million will be required for the unified board. In FY 2023, that figure is slated to decrease to $138 million.
FY 2021 costs show the state sending $143.86 million toward both the USNH and the CCSNH. That number dipped from FY 2020, which had allotted $151.755 million to both systems.
On Thursday, Sununu said the legislature should “absolutely” come back after reviewing the budget and request additional funding for outside consultancy and expertise to “help this process move along.”
“So money is the easy part, frankly. We can change that and for me, that shouldn’t even be a consideration. Will this merger save us money? Maybe, maybe not. That’s not why we’re doing this,” he said. “This isn’t about saving an extra buck. This is about providing a better opportunity for our students and making ourselves competitive in what is going to be an incredibly competitive market.”
In the next three to five years, Sununu said “at least” 35%, perhaps even half, of mid-size U.S. colleges are going to fail and will be gone.
“And so that competitive aspect of it, right, why should we have two public systems that are constantly fighting each other for dollars, for students, for everything, when they should be kind of competing against all the private institutions and the other state institutions in the other states?” he said. “They spend so much time fighting each other. It’s an inherently backwards system when you think about it that way.”
Sununu: Community college leader hesitancies are a ‘protectionist’ mindset
Widespread support has been shown from the university side, though Sununu said there has been some hesitancy expressed from the community college camp.
Faculty and students “love” the idea of bringing the systems together, he stated. Faculty will have the capability of working with larger programs typically only afforded to university system students. Students will “have more opportunity to do more stuff and be able to pivot a little more.”
So who is not as convinced? Sununu alleged a few figures on the CCSNH board are harder to budge.
“To be frank, I think half the board of the community college is very much on board. Half of them are thinking old school,” he said.
The few individuals not as willing to go forth with a consolidation are operating under a “protectionist” mindset, Sununu said. In his view, they are hoping that the uncertainties facing the community college system are a passing storm
“‘If we just stay in our shell, everything will be OK. The storm will blow over,’” he said of their mindset. “It’s not going to.”
One concern he’s heard raised pertains to job losses as a result of the merger. To that, Sununu said that efficiencies are “always” going to be found and that he is not an expert on mergers and acquisitions. Potential issues as such, he said, can be reviewed by outside experts.
Sununu maintained that community college system leaders who want to “turtle up” and pray the uncertainties spare them from financial loss or closure need to look at the data.
“I think it’s a huge win for the community college system and I think pretty much everybody, except for… I mean literally a few board members, would acknowledge that,” he said.