Lawmakers challenge CSU policy following Norton removal

A new policy that allowed Connecticut State University System Chancellor David G. Carter to quietly remove a campus president last fall was designed to keep such matters private, Carter told state lawmakers Wednesday.

So private, in fact, that several members of the CSU Board of Trustees did not know until afterwards of Carter’s decision to force Southern Connecticut State University President Cheryl Norton to step down.

“I was not aware,” trustee Gail Williams told a legislative committee in Hartford, saying that she and some other trustees have often been left out of major policy decisions.

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CSU Chancellor David Carter, left, and trustee John Sholtis take questions from the legislature’s higher education committee (Jacqueline Rabe)

Williams’ remarks, along with testimony from Carter and other officials, led lawmakers to sharply criticize Carter and the board for their handling of Norton’s removal. At issue was a policy that allows the chancellor to remove campus presidents without a vote of the board and with the consent only of the board chairman.

That policy was adopted last October, only weeks before Carter notified Norton that she would be removed.

“I think this chancellor, on the evidence presented today, usurped [the board’s] power,” state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said after a forum convened by the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

Meyer also said he believes the policy may be in violation of a state law that says hiring and firing of higher education professional staff is under the sole jurisdiction of boards of trustees.

“I think we need a new leader of the state university system,” he said.

Norton’s departure was announced in February as a retirement, but documents obtained by The Mirror indicated that Norton, 61, had been forced out and had negotiated a settlement with the CSU system.

Some legislators have criticized an arrangement that keeps Norton on the CSU payroll at her full $285,200 salary for a year after she relinquishes her duties while also paying her interim replacement a salary of $280,200.

During the forum, Meyer asked Carter repeatedly whether the Board of Trustees had the opportunity to review his decision to end Norton’s presidency.

However, Carter, flanked by his private attorney, Bartley Halloran, refused to answer direct questions involving Norton because of a settlement between the university and Norton that prohibits university officials from discussing circumstances surrounding her removal. Carter said Halloran accompanied him because the attorney general’s office advised him that it does not represent state agencies in such hearings.

Carter often consulted Halloran before answering, and at one point Meyer expressed frustration, pressing Carter to answer.

“You’re the chancellor,” Meyer said.

“Yes,” Carter replied, “but I also understand lawsuits.”

The university’s new policy grants the chancellor a level of authority that is uncommon in most other states, according to a report issued last week by the state Office of Legislative Research. Most states require board approval to dismiss a president, and only four of 35 university systems reviewed had similar policies, the report said.

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The ‘B Team’: CSU trustee Gail Williams tells legislators she and other members of the board were left out of key decisions (Robert A. Frahm)

Under the revised policy, the CSU board has an option to overturn the chancellor’s decision at its next regular meeting after the president has been notified. However, in Norton’s case, that meeting took place after she had signed a separation agreement. As a result, the matter was removed from the agenda during the meeting, and the board never discussed it.

“In the final analysis, the total board was involved,” Carter said.

Carter said the policy was designed to protect the privacy of presidents and to give a president who is removed from office “the chance to pursue his or her career with dignity.”

He told the committee, “Those of you who have known me for some time are aware I place a high premium on integrity and honor. . . .Throughout this process, my intention has always been to treat people fairly . . . and to act in the best interest of the state and our students.”

Board Chairman Karl Krapek did not attend the forum, but trustee John Sholtis, appearing in Krapek’s place, defended Carter. “Any notion of an aggrandizement of power on his part is unjustified, inaccurate and counterproductive,” Sholtis said.

The new policy was a change in procedure but “not an abrogation of board authority,” he said.

However, not all board members had a role in creating the policy, said Williams. The policy was approved by the board’s Executive Committee, a group Williams referred to as “the A Team.”

Eight of the board’s 18 members are on the executive committee. According to committee minutes, the policy revision did not require approval of the full board.

“It’s been brought up that there’s an A Team and a B Team,” Williams said. “I know I’m going to get destroyed for this, but it comes down to the ones that know [what’s happening] and the ones that don’t know.”

Williams, who is not on the Executive Committee, said that after learning of the new policy on removing presidents, she wanted trustees to discuss the issue, but, “When I tried to bring it to the board – honestly, I was chastised by the A Team.”

She said she didn’t know of Norton’s removal until after the fact, and Meyer later said he heard from other trustees who also were in the dark.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said the CSU trustees have abdicated their responsibility.

“This is extremely alarming to me – the process you’ve described here,” she told Williams.

The committee also heard from Brian Johnson, the president of Southern’s Faculty Senate, who criticized the policy on removing presidents, saying it would have a chilling effect on presidents and create “a climate of fear.”

The policy, he said, “flies in the face of the traditional role of the board.”

He also told the committee that the faculty senate asked Carter and Krapek to consider naming someone from Southern as Norton’s interim replacement, but, “We were told it was the chancellor’s decision.”

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