Metro

Community colleges dispute call for overhaul

Presidents deny need for governing board

Community college presidents reacted with surprise yesterday to a new Boston Foundation report calling for a dramatic structural and financial overhaul of the state’s 15-school system.

The report cites poor graduation rates and an inability to produce enough workers with the technical skills that employers demand. It calls for a strong new board to oversee and coordinate the colleges and recommends aggressively measuring student performance and funneling funds to schools with the most impressive statistics.

The presidents said they largely agreed with the report’s assessment of their challenges and some of its recommendations, but they took issue with its chief proposal - the creation of a central governing board - arguing that they already collaborate to solve problems.

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“We think we’re doing a hell of a lot better job than we did in the past,’’ said William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College. “We’re on the case.’’

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The report was released at a crowded forum at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank yesterday, where many of the college presidents saw it for the first time, if they were lucky enough to get their hands on it before copies ran out.

The keynote speaker at the forum was Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia community college system, which is far more centralized than Massachusetts’ and tightly aligned with the labor needs of employers.

The foundation’s report, first described in the Globe yesterday, suggests the Massachusetts system be revamped along the lines of Virginia’s. DuBois tried to allay fears that centralization would rob the colleges of their independence: “Don’t think that it’s some Soviet system of higher education,’’ he said.

He said that high unemployment, a growing skills gap, and declining state funding for higher education have combined to create a mandate for change.

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John Schneider, a coauthor of the Boston Foundation report, also spoke, citing surging enrollment at community colleges as another reason change is needed. Data from 2009 shows a 23 percent jump since 2005, with schools serving some 209,000 people. More than half are over 25, and many are seeking quick, specialized job training, not pathways to four-year degrees.

But after the speeches, some community college representatives questioned the notion that colleges should refocus their missions away from helping students to transfer to four-year schools. Others said the colleges already embrace their workforce development role well enough.

“That’s what we do. We’re clear about that. We’ve been doing it for 50 years,’’ said panelist Ira Rubenzahl, president of Springfield Technical Community College, citing a $20 million federal workforce grant that the colleges recently won as a group. “I’m concerned that [the proposed structural changes] will be disruptive at a time when our institutions are fragile.’’

The key disagreement, said Boston Foundation chief executive officer Paul Grogan, is not the direction of reform but the degree.

“The report clearly is not calling for tweaking,’’ Grogan said. “Can we tweak this system and get where we want to go? Or is the report right, and do we need radical change?’’

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Later, huddling in a conference room, the presidents tried to process the report. Some endorsed an accountability-based funding formula, and all said they welcomed the attention the report has shone on the financially strapped system.

“Obviously there are lots of opportunities to do more and to work with others who are willing to work with us,’’ said Bill Hart, executive director of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office.

The presidents also said they were surprised at a complaint in the report regarding the difficulty students have transferring from one college to another.

“They raised that as a major issue; it’s never been an issue,’’ said Carole Cowan, president of Middlesex Community College.

However, Julian Alssid, one of the report’s three authors, said that in interviews for the report, the foundation had heard the complaint from employers and civic groups “again and again and again.’’

Many of the presidents said they felt left out of the Boston Foundation’s discussions, but Alssid said the foundation met twice with community college representatives before publishing the report.

Mary Jo Meisner, the foundation’s vice president for communications, said the report “was never designed to have a majority point of view and a counterpoint of view on everything.

“We want to bring together business and civic interests who are not the usual suspects, who are not within the system, but need to be better served by them,’’ she said.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.