Lawmakers seek opinion on Norton ouster

Two state lawmakers have asked Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to investigate Connecticut State University Chancellor David G. Carter’s removal of Southern Connecticut State University President Cheryl Norton.

In a letter to the attorney general’s office Thursday, the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee asked whether Carter has the legal authority to remove a president without a vote of the Board of Trustees.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, and Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, asked for clarification of a new policy under which Carter forced Norton to submit her resignation in December.

That policy allows the chancellor to remove campus presidents without a vote of the board and with the consent only of the board chairman. The policy was adopted last October, only weeks before Carter notified Norton that she would be removed.

Carter underwent an intense grilling from lawmakers at a forum hosted by Handley and Willis last week but defended his handling of Norton’s removal, saying he followed approved board procedures.

Some board members, however, have told legislators that they were not aware of Carter’s decision to remove Norton until after she had resigned.

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.

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.

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.”

“The legal issues keep getting muddied in semantics,” Handley said. “What we need is the attorney general to cut through that language.”

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 month 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 policies similar to that of CSU, the report said.

In a brief statement, Blumenthal said his office would review the request for an investigation and respond “in a timely fashion.”

Carter, through a university spokesman, declined to comment Thursday.