After 6 years, an awkward exit for Norton

It was the last meeting of the school year for the Connecticut State University System’s Board of Trustees, and farewells were in order.

There was the valediction to the student members of the board, given praise by the board’s chairman, a plaque thanking them for their service, a handshake and a chance to speak, followed by applause from about 100 attendees.

And there was the brief and awkward goodbye to Southern Connecticut State University president Cheryl Norton.

Reading in a monotone from a sheet of paper, Chancellor David G. Carter spent 15 seconds on his send-off for Norton, who has served as president at the university in New Haven for almost six years.

“I wish to express my appreciation to President Norton for her many contributions to Southern Connecticut State University during her tenure as president,” he said. “I wish her the very best as she embarks on her sabbatical leave.”

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Norton, Carter part ways (Jacqueline Rabe)

Following his remarks he did not look at her, nor did the two speak before or after her last Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.

Within seconds of the meeting being gaveled closed, Norton was headed for the exit, leaving behind a room full of stunned colleagues and her leather notebook with the SCSU emblem filled with her business cards and other job-related materials.

Norton leaves Southern at the end of this month, having been dismissed by Carter in November.

Both Norton and Carter were mum on the events surrounding her departure.

“I cannot talk about it,” Norton said.

“I will not talk about it,” Carter said.

Despite Norton’s February announcement that she was stepping down “for personal and professional reasons,” and an official description of her departure as a “retirement,” The Connecticut Mirror disclosed last month that Norton actually had been dismissed by Carter in a Nov. 17 letter. Lawyers later negotiated a separation agreement.

The agreement states that Norton’s departure “is not related in any way to her work performance or for disciplinary reasons,” but give no other reason. As part of the agreement, Norton and CSU officials agreed not to comment on the separation.

But that didn’t stop nearly a dozen professors and the student board member from Western Connecticut State University from speaking against the way her departure was handled during a public forum following Thursday’s meeting.

“The presidents will end up thinking that they have to stay under the grips of the chancellor in order to retain their job,” said Steve Larocco, an English professor at Southern, adding that that Norton’s dismissal “consolidates power to the chancellor.”

Larocco was referring to Carter’s dismissal of Norton under a new policy that had been adopted by the executive committee of the CSU trustees just eight weeks earlier. The new policy allows a chancellor, with approval of the trustees’ chairman, to dismiss a president without cause. Previously, approval by the entire 18-member board was required.

Complaints about Norton’s dismissal continued after the meeting.

“It was a hush job. She didn’t need to be fired. She was a good president. I have not been able to find anyone who would have agreed she needed to be fired,” Will Hochman, an English professor at Southern, told a group of professors talking after the meeting.

They agreed with him.

Brian Johnson, president of Southern’s Faculty Senate, said he is “tired of being side-stepped” by the board in his request for a review of the policy.

“No one really knows what happened. Let them bring the policy to the light of the full board. We’ve been seeking transparency and dialogue and we’ve been rebuffed every step of the way,” he said.

Johnson said he is “clueless” to why Norton was fired, since “all the measures of how our university is doing have been great.”

The group of critics may have spurred one trustee to act, as Gail Williams voiced her concern with the policy following the public forum and asked that the full board review the new policy’s merits.

There is no guarantee the item will be placed on a future board of trustees agenda, but it is on the agenda of state lawmakers. Members of the Higher Education Committee to promise a full investigation in the coming month. Neither Carter nor Norton would say whether they will testify, but Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, said as co-chairwoman of the committee she has the power to subpoena them to testify. Whether she plans to go that far remains to be determined, she said.