Gregory W- Gray

Chris Powell: The Conn. higher-education racket

MANCHESTER, Conn. Hearing complaints the other week about the supposed affront to higher education in  Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget proposal, the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee may have set a record for obliviousness.

University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst -- benefactor of a $251,000 honorarium to Hillary Clinton and fresh from a $300,000 raise on top of her $500,000 salary, which accompanies use of two mansions, one in Storrs and one in Hartford -- pleaded the university's poverty and warned that everything the university does might be impaired by the budget. No one on the committee asked Herbst about those grotesque expenses.

Coming along in tow were dozens of UConn students, including a women's varsity basketball player, who all knew that they didn't want to sacrifice anything, who apparently thought that somebody else somewhere does want to sacrifice, and who made no more helpful suggestions than Herbst did.

No one on the committee asked Herbst or the students if they could provide information about instructor course loads and staff salary and benefit increases at UConn or whether the university's refusal to accept oversight by the state Contracting Standards Board might get in the way of saving money.

The whole racket of public higher education in Connecticut was inadvertently exposed at the hearing by Gregory W. Gray, president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which purports to run Connecticut's four lesser universities, whose chief executives are paid only in the $350,000-$400,000 range, just 2½ times what the governor is paid for running the whole state. (Herbst soon will be making more than five times as much as the governor.)

Gray seemed most upset that the governor's budget neglected to appropriate for remedial education for university students -- that is, students admitted to college without ever mastering high school work, though they have been given high school diplomas anyway, academic standards in high school having been abolished.

Five years ago a state survey found that two-thirds of the university system's freshmen had to take remedial math or English courses or both. While the General Assembly and governor were horrified by this, they enacted legislation not to fix the problem but to hide it -- to outlaw remedial math and English courses and require university instructors to provide remedial help to students individually, so that there might never again be such a revealing survey.

No one on the committee questioned the premise and policy that everyone in Connecticut should be given a college education at public expense even if he has failed high school.

Nor was Gray questioned about his board's recent promotion to full professor of a Central Connecticut State University teacher while he was in jail and the university's persistence in that promotion despite his subsequent arrests and general irresponsibility.

Of course nothing better could be expected of Herbst and Gray, self-serving bureaucrats reflexively defending their burgeoning empires. It's their job, at least as they see it.

But a few critical questions from legislators on the committee might have made an impression on some of the students and encouraged them to aspire to become more than they were that day, mere props and tools for the government class.

Indeed, a few critical questions from legislators also might have made an impression on the news reporters who attended the hearing, prompting them to convey to the public more than the bureaucrats' predictable whining, to convey some of the choices that are made in state government all the time without ever being articulated --  such as salaries vs. services, actual learning vs. mere self-esteem, and efficiency in government vs. the educational inflation caused by the collapse of standards, whereby Connecticut now pays for 16 years of education but doesn't receive what it once got from 12.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, based in Manchester, Conn.