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ECSU introduces no confidence vote in CSCU's Terrence Cheng

The university senate president at Eastern Connecticut State University on Tuesday introduced a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Terrence Cheng, claiming that under his leadership, the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system has been mismanaged and sent into a crisis.

The resolution comes just weeks after the Board of Regents for Higher Education voted to raise tuition by 5% at the state’s regional universities and community colleges. The tuition hikes, along with buyout offers to staff, are a response to the state budget that left the CSCU system facing a $140 million shortfall as pandemic relief funds and additional state funding expires.

“This vote was the culmination of conversations I have had with faculty leaders throughout the system. There is a real concern about the direction of higher education in Connecticut, in particular for the students we serve,” said William Lugo, the Eastern university senate president. “CSCU is a system that is here to serve all students, and especially those from Connecticut, regardless of income. All students deserve the opportunity to attend a quality, in-person higher education institution. However, the direction the system is currently headed threatens such a possibility. The CSCU system needs a new direction.”

In response to the resolution, Adam Joseph, vice chancellor for external affairs at CSCU, said administrators “recognize the uncertainty faculty at all levels are feeling.”

“These are challenging times for higher education in Connecticut and across the nation,” Joseph said. “Change can be difficult, and Chancellor Cheng is committed to continuing to work with our faculty, staff, and stakeholders to ensure that our state colleges and universities meet the needs of our students and Connecticut’s economy.”

The university senate is a representative body at each of the four regional state universities and CT State Community College made up of several faculty members, administration officers and a handful of students representing the campus’ student body. The groups are responsible for recommendations to the administration of the CSCU system, for things like academic calendars, academic standards and issues regarding students or staff.

The resolution was sent out to members of the Eastern university senate, as well as the three other university senate presidents, Monday afternoon. Votes are expected to be cast at the group’s next meeting, on Jan. 30.

Other CSCU campuses are considering similar resolutions, Lugo said, but he did not specify which colleges or when they may be forthcoming.

Jeff Schlicht, the university senate president at Western Connecticut State University, said a no-confidence vote was not an agenda item for their upcoming meeting Wednesday. Representatives from Southern and Central Connecticut State University did not immediately return requests for comment.

The resolution introduced at Eastern says Cheng has ignored traditional shared governance protocols, refuses to work with the system’s institutions in good faith, has failed to secure adequate funding, hasn’t taken accountability for problems within the CSCU system and “has consistently eroded the autonomy of CSCU institutions.”

It also included criticisms of the system’s front office, including that it created high-cost positions without “necessary searches and procedures,” has not been transparent with stakeholders, and that its community college merger has been mismanaged and created financial and structural instability.

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“It’s no surprise that CSU faculty are looking for ways to communicate their frustration with the Chancellor when system administrators fail to join us in demanding the resources our students deserve,” said Louise Williams, the union president for CSU-AAUP, which represents the employees at the state’s regional universities. “The root of this frustration is the harmful $160 million in cuts that could have been avoided if Gov. [Ned] Lamont and state lawmakers chose to adequately fund public higher education in the previous legislative session.”

Williams said the state instead has “manufactured a budget crisis” and that union members plan to continue advocating for additional funding in the upcoming 2024 legislative session, set to begin on Feb. 7.

In the meantime, Lugo hopes Eastern’s vote will “bring attention to the crisis that is happening.”

This crisis goes beyond the fiscal and is really about mismanagement at the system level. I hope the governor and the legislature begin to have serious conversations about what is happening within the CSCU system and how leadership at the system office led us to where we are,” he said.

Williams and other labor leaders argue this shortfall has been “manufactured” because — while the regents are scrambling to cut costs — state government’s coffers, at least in the short term, are flush.

Lamont’s budget office estimated last month that state finances will close this fiscal year, on June 30, with more than $650 million left over, a healthy surplus equal to roughly 3% of the General Fund. More importantly, that’s part of a larger trend that has seen state government amass close to $11 billion in surpluses since 2018. And while the governor and legislature have used most of those windfalls to reduce state pension debt and to amass a $3.3 billion rainy day fund, unions and other interest groups says the savings effort is too aggressive, stripping vital resources from core programs.

Legislators established a new series of budgetary controls, commonly called “fiscal guardrails” in 2017, renewing them unanimously in 2023 to remain in place at least for another five years. These include caps on spending and borrowing and two other programs to force legislators to save a portion of annual revenues, particularly those from volatile income and business taxes.

Lamont has pressed legislators to adhere closely to these guardrails, noting Connecticut still faces significant long-term fiscal challenges. Having failed properly to save for pensions for public-sector employees for more than seven decades prior to 2010, Connecticut has more than $37 billion in unfunded pension obligations, according to the administration’s budget office. That burden, coupled with unfunded retiree health care obligations and outstanding bonding debt, approaches $82 billion, making Connecticut one of the most indebted states, per capita, in the nation.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.