CSUS personnel policy ruled illegal as committee works to revise it

The procedure used to remove Southern Connecticut State University’s former president was illegal, the attorney general’s office said Wednesday, just as a Connecticut State University System committee recommended creating a “more transparent” termination process.

The legal opinion, signed by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, said the CSUS Board of Trustees improperly delegated its authority to approve personnel policies to its Executive Committee, and the Executive Committee improperly gave CSUS Chancellor David Carter the power to remove university presidents without board approval.

The policy leading to Carter’s subsequent decision to “non-continue” SCSU president Cheryl Norton was “without legal authority,” the opinion said. Norton subsequently negotiated a resignation agreement that included a one-year paid sabbatical.

The opinion was released as an ad hoc committee of CSUS trustees met Wednesday to discuss new procedures for dismissing university presidents. The full Board of Trustees voted two weeks ago to remove the Executive Committee’s authority to set policy on its own, and established the ad hoc committee to review the policy under which Carter removed Norton.

The committee recommended that the trustees approve a “more transparent” process for removing a president, including a public vote by the full board.

David P. Trainor, Carter’s executive assistant, said the procedure Carter used to remove Norton was open.

“There is nothing that was not transparent… Everything was available to the public,” he said. “I do not want anyone to leave with the impression that someone was trying to hide something, because that was not the case.”

Trustee Angelo J. Messina said he supports a more transparent policy, but said it will make it difficult for a president to leave without having a stigma surrounding their departure.

“They’ve got a stamp on their head forever that they were terminated,” he said.

CSUS committee moves to change how university presidents are removed. AG says current policy not legal

CSUS trustees Elizabeth S. Gagne and Angelo J. Messina discuss revising the system’s personnel policy (Jacqueline Rabe)

But Elizabeth S. Gagne, chairwoman of the committee, said the proposed policy does allow a president to avoid the publicity of a board vote by opting to resign before the board acts.

Messina said the new policy also gives a president a chance to challenge a dismissal. “They have a process that is fair,” he said.

Blumenthal’s opinion said a new policy should be adopted because, “Decisions to remove a university president are the responsibility of the full board of trustees. … [This] attempted to provide the Chancellor a level of authority that is uncommon in most states.”

A recent Office of Legislative Research report agreed, noting that most states require board approval to dismiss a president, and only four of 35 university systems reviewed had policies similar to that now being revised by CSUS.

Assistant Attorney General Henry Salton said during the CSUS committee meeting he believes their recommended new policy “will pass legal muster” and should be adopted immediately.

He suggested that the policy be changed to require the Board of Trustees to discuss a termination in executive session before bringing it to a public vote, but the committee declined to adopt his proposal.