Dismissal of Southern Connecticut president raises concerns about chancellor’s authority

In a lengthy interview with New Haven Magazine late last year, Cheryl Norton talked about her goals as Southern Connecticut State University’s president.

“Norton,” the magazine said when it published the interview in December, “is still kicking butt and taking names.”

But by then, Norton had been notified that she was being dismissed from her job, and lawyers were negotiating a separation agreement. She announced her departure in February, saying she was stepping down after nearly six years “for personal and professional reasons.”

carter to norton, 11-17-09

News of what was officially described as Norton’s “retirement” caught the campus in New Haven by surprise. It also raised concerns about a newly-adopted dismissal process that some faculty members contend gives too much power to Connecticut State University System Chancellor David G. Carter.

A separation agreement obtained by The Mirror reveals little about what led to Norton’s dismissal except to say it “is not related in any way to her work performance or for disciplinary reasons.” The agreement between Norton and the CSU System says the resignation “is in their individual and collective interests” and that the agreement settles “all differences, disagreements and issues” between them.

Exactly what those differences are is not clear.

However, according to faculty members and others, Norton’s departure was the culmination of tensions between her and Carter, who only weeks earlier had won a policy change that gives him authority to dismiss campus presidents “without cause or explanation” and without a vote of the system’s Board of Trustees.

Earlier this month, Carter named Stanley Battle, former president of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, as SCSU’s interim president. Battle and Carter were colleagues at Eastern Connecticut State University when Carter was Eastern’s president in the 1990s.

Under terms of the seven-page separation agreement, Norton will be on paid leave beginning June 1. She will retain the title of president and remain on the university’s payroll for a year at her annual salary of $285,200.  During that time, the university also will pay Battle an annual salary of $280,200.

The agreement also grants travel and conference fees and other costs for a six-month sabbatical during Norton’s leave but waives the usual requirement that she return to the university at the end of the sabbatical.

In their settlement, Norton and university officials agreed not to comment publicly about the separation, not to make disparaging statements about each other and not to make terms of the agreement public “unless required by law to do so.” The Mirror obtained the agreement under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Norton and Carter have refused to comment for this story.

Norton signed the separation settlement on Dec. 9. Two days later, she submitted a resignation letter to Carter.

Even before the public announcement of her departure, faculty members at the CSU system’s four universities – Southern, Central, Eastern and Western – raised questions about a new policy giving Carter authority to remove campus presidents with the consent only of the chairman of the system’s Board of Trustees.

“The policy unwisely and dangerously centralizes power in the Chancellor’s office,” Brian Johnson, president of Southern’s Faculty Senate, wrote to Board of Trustees Chairman Karl Krapek. If the board hires presidents and reviews their performance, Johnson wrote, “then why should the Chancellor alone have the power to initiate a firing and to execute it with the concurrence of only the Board Chair?”

Krapek, through a university spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

However, in a letter to Johnson he denied that the board had relinquished any authority to the chancellor. “The Chancellor and university presidents have always been and continue to be employees at will who serve at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees,” Krapek wrote.

In the letter, Krapek said the revised policy – which includes an option for the board to overturn the chancellor’s decision  – is designed to handle dismissals discreetly without a board vote “for the noble purpose of protecting the privacy of a president in such a situation.”

The board adopted the policy in October. In a letter dated Nov. 17, Carter notified Norton of his decision to end her presidency: “I hereby notify you… that your appointment as President of Southern Connecticut State University will be non-continued effective Dec. 1, 2010.”

He added that the decision “is not intended to impact your career or abilities to seek another presidency where your skills would be better suited.”

Norton was a finalist recently for the presidency at Youngstown State University in Ohio but did not get the job.

After her resignation, faculty leaders wrote to Krapek, urging the board to select someone from Southern’s administration as interim president, but Krapek replied that “the determination of who is hired to be the Chancellor or president and whether they are retained remains the exclusive determination of the Board, with input from other appropriate parties.”

The day Norton’s resignation was announced, the university released statements of praise from Krapek and Carter.

“Her years leading Southern have been characterized first and foremost by a devotion to students and a commitment to furthering opportunity, while encouraging involvement in civic life,” Carter said.

Krapek’s statement said: “Her enthusiasm and commitment to the institution, as well as the links she nurtured with businesses and community organizations, contributed to numerous accomplishments during her years in Connecticut. We understand her decision to pursue other career opportunities, and wish her every success in the future.”

University officials also cited record enrollment growth, a $260 million construction program and the introduction of “innovative programming . . . to support student achievement” during her tenure.

At a CSU System Board of Trustees meeting this month hosted by Southern, she received standing ovations from a large crowd of faculty, students and staff.

“We thought she was a great success,” said Michael Shea, an English professor and one of several people who spoke at the meeting. Among her accomplishments, he said, was hiring a strong administrative staff and a significant number of additional full-time faculty members.

Norton, 61, is the first woman to head Southern. She was appointed president in 2004 under former CSU System Chancellor William Cibes.

“She ran a tight ship here,” said Gregg Crerar, Southern’s director of development and vice president of a union representing administrative staff. “She wasn’t as political. She was an academic.”

In the recent interview in New Haven Magazine, Norton, formerly a nationally ranked marathon runner and a black belt in taekwondo, was asked how sports help women.

“I think every little girl should do some martial arts, to learn they can get hit and they will live through it,” she said. “Not that women should be hit, but there is a basic understanding that I’m not so fragile. It’s rough in the business world, and you have to be able to know you can withstand that mental and emotional punishment.”