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Cibes Leaves An Unexpected Legacy In Education

New London native retires as chancellor of university system after a transformation from Gov. Weicker's budget hawk to strong advocate for affordable state education.

On Cibes' Watch
Numbers from the Connecticut State University system:

Enrollment: 33,000, including 22,424 full time.

The state funded 42% of CSU's $224 million operating budget.

Endowment: $8 million

Enrollment: 34,500, including 26,998 full time

State contributes about 43% of the $485.7 million budget

Endowment: $30 million

In the past five years, the number receiving a bachelor's degree has increased from 3,580 to 4,291.

Day Staff Writer, Education Reporter
Published on January 22, 2006

Hartford — In a speech to some of Connecticut's top educators this month, a researcher warned that the state is headed for a “demographic perfect storm” as its work force becomes increasingly younger and less likely to speak English or hold a college degree.

William J. Cibes Jr., chancellor of the Connecticut State University system, told those same educators that forecast highlighted the need for lawmakers to make college more affordable and accessible, particularly for poor urban students who could be the first in their families to attend college.

The comment from Cibes, greeted with nods of assent, demonstrated how his career has come full circle since he was one of the state's most powerful political figures.

In 1994 Cibes' appointment as chancellor was greeted not with assent but protests from faculty who felt he had been responsible for freezing faculty salaries and operating budgets for two years while serving as then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker's budget chief. When Cibes arrived to be interviewed for the chancellor's post, a picket line of professors sought to block his entrance.

Today, with any resentment toward him long faded, Cibes stands as a forceful advocate for the state universities, Southern, Central, Eastern and Western Connecticut. His record of accomplishments includes expanding the four campuses and improving access to courses. With state funding mostly stagnant, Cibes solidified the mission of the state university system, energized fund raising, increased enrollment and found ways to modernize campuses with $647 million in construction.

And now, 11 years after he was hired, the 62-year-old former New London resident and Connecticut College political science professor, who ran for governor and was long considered a contender for Congress, retires as chancellor. The man considered one of the state's most adept political minds in recent decades now leaves a legacy in higher education as well.

But Cibes' legacy in academics likely would not have come without the political achievements that preceded it. And, in turn, that formidable political career might never have unfolded without his even earlier career in academics, which first brought him to New London and Connecticut College.


A native of Altamont, Kan., Cibes grew up on a farm in the town of 650. He eventually went to the University of Kansas, where he flourished.

World events, including the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, inspired Cibes to see what he called the “real world of politics.” After earning his doctorate at Princeton University, he was hired in 1969 to teach government at Connecticut College.

It was there, in New London, while working for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, that he learned about the city's longstanding Democratic political machine. In most American cities, the “machine” had largely disappeared and was remembered mainly as a relic defined by the bygone days of political deals in Tammany Hall or smoky Chicago backrooms.

In New London, however, the machine continued to thrive. Under then-party chairman A.A. “Ted” Washton, Cibes made the leap from academic theorist to candidate, serving on the New London Board of Education from 1974 to 1978 before being elected as New London's representative in the state House of Representatives, a post he held for a dozen years. In that job he was known for long hours and pragmatism, and he quickly rose to become deputy speaker and chairman of the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

In 1990, Cibes boldly but unsuccessfully campaigned for governor as the only advocate for the state income tax. When Weicker was elected, he immediately recruited Cibes to become the state's budget chief at the Office of Policy and Management. There he crafted Connecticut's first income tax.

Shortly afterward Cibes was rumored to be a candidate for governor again, or a challenger to Sam Gejdenson in the second congressional district. At the same time, the state university system's Board of Trustees decided that his experience in academia and public finance — combined with the fact he had graduated from a public university — made him the ideal candidate for chancellor.

“We all learn a lot from experience,” said Cibes. “I would not have served as well as state representative if I had not served prior on the New London school board. I wouldn't have been as effective at OPM without serving as legislator. The same applies to my experience as chancellor.”


Cibes became the chancellor at a difficult time. Enrollment was declining, due in part to a drop in population, and tuition and fees had increased 90 percent in the previous five years.

He saw his role as carrying out the will and vision of the college trustees. In doing so, he was the system's chief representative to the legislature, oversaw collective bargaining and crafted capital and operating budgets.

He also thought it was his duty to raise the profile of the state university system.

Prior to his arrival, Cibes said, the state university system's overall mission was “vague.” The universities, he said, were unsure whether they should aspire to become research universities or not.

Valerie Lewis, commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Higher Education, said Cibes unified the four to focus on “teaching and learning” and to fill the middle spot between the state's community colleges, which generally have the most flexible and least expensive paths to higher education, and the University of Connecticut, with the most extensive resources and competitive admissions.

Lewis said Cibes successfully pursued the four key goals he had first outlined October 1994, when he was inaugurated chancellor and received the university mace: to support and sustain a society; to help educate immigrants seeking a new life; to train an educated work force; and to improve the system as an institution.

In defining a mission, Cibes saw the university system as essential in providing Connecticut an educated and “agile work force.” Lewis said Cibes was able to do this in part by offering more night and weekend courses and intensive modules that condensed instruction.

Today, Cibes takes pride in the fact that the system helps many become the first in their families to go to college. The average cost for an in-state undergraduate student for tuition and mandatory fees is about $5,936. Less than 40 percent of CSU students live and eat on campus, but an in-state undergraduate student living and eating on campus would pay an average of $13,461.

Tuition at CSU is the lowest in the nation as a share of per capita income. The percentage of minority students enrolled at CSU has increased from 11 percent in 1994 to 17 percent today.

“Bill absolutely understands the need to help people prepare for the work force and gain access to college, particularly blue-collar families, where college can be a big step in life,” said Lewis.

Even though state university systems across the country had sophisticated development offices decades ago, Cibes said Connecticut only launched its effort in recent years. It did so, in part, by “piggybacking” in 1997 on the state's promise to match all donations to the University of Connecticut. CSU receives a 25-cent match for every dollar donated.

Cibes oversaw the effort to modernize campuses to, as he said, “make them look like universities.” He obtained tax-exempt bonds with low financing rates through the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority. The effort required a special exemption by the state legislature. Today, the state system is CHEFA's second-largest client after Yale University. From his experience at the Capitol, Lewis said, Cibes “knew how, where and when to get funds.”

“What CSU did was very innovative and forward,” said Rich Gray, CHEFA's executive director.

Now a Hartford resident, Cibes chose to retire this year because his wife, Peg, retired last year after a career teaching mathematics at a host of colleges in the state. Cibes will be replaced as chancellor by David G. Carter, who has been the Eastern Connecticut State University president since 1988.

In his retirement, Cibes will continue to serve on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including CHEFA. He hopes to develop his 1967 dissertation, “The Extra Judicial Activities of Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1790-1860,” into a book on the subject.

“I believe in the educational value of participating in a democracy,” said Cibes. “It requires a person to make serious moral judgments, with a long-term impact on people's lives, to grow intellectually in a way that will never happen if you just sit in front of the television.”

© The Day Publishing Co., 2006

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