Not a ‘buyout’ for college presidents, an ‘expedited’ separation process

In reaction to what one official says is internal dissent over a new law governing remedial education, members of the state’s community college governing board were notified this week that their staff has offered 12 college presidents an expedited exit from their contracts.

The 15-member Board of Regents for Higher Education was also informed for the first time that the presidents’ performance is being evaluated earlier than usual as part of the expedited separation process.

In an email to the board Tuesday, Michael Meotti, executive vice president of the college system, addressed an issue first broached publicly by Manchester Community College President Gena Glickman. She told her faculty and staff that she and the 11 other college presidents were offered a buyout that they must decide to accept by Oct. 31 or risk dismissal.

This is not the first time the manner of dismissing college presidents has been an issue in Connecticut. Two years ago, the state’s attorney general ruled in another college president’s ouster that dismissal authority rests with the higher education board, not its executive staff.

Meotti has denied the accuracy of Glickman’s account, but told the board in his memo that the college system’s vice president for human resources, “met with the community college presidents to reinforce the significance of our change agenda across a range of educational issues. Steve explained that there would be a process for review of presidential performance…”

“The urgency of our work required us to expedite the process this year,” Meotti wrote.

The urgency stems from the system’s need to implement a new state law that limits when students can be forced to take remedial courses. Some college presidents have balked at the change, Meotti wrote; yet employment policies require they be given a 12-month notice before they are dismissed.

So Meotti’s office proposed offering “an earlier trigger to the 12-month notice period if mutually agreed upon. [Staff] would follow up individually with presidents,” he told the board. The move was an effort to “create a path to an amicable resolution with anyone who might feel they could not carry out the directions of the law and the board,” Meotti told the board.

“The board hasn’t met so they have not been briefed,” he said Thursday.

Meotti said he will not disclose what areas of his administration’s “change agenda” the presidents are resisting, saying that’s a personnel issue.

Board of Regents members Richard Balducci and Lawrence DeNardis have said that Meotti’s memo and a Connecticut Mirror story earlier this week were the first they have heard about problems with the college presidents implementing the new remediation law known as SB-40.

“The board has never met [about] or discussed this,” Balducci said of the meetings he’s attended.

“That would be well within our jurisdiction.” said DeNardis. “The board has not been involved up to this point. I expect the board to be.”

Two years ago, the Connecticut Mirror reported about the controversial dismissal of Southern Connecticut State University’s president, Cheryl Norton.

Then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued a legal opinion saying the higher education board at the time improperly allowed then-Chancellor David Carter to unilaterally remove Norton.

The board eventually changed its policy, and promised to be “more transparent” in dismissals of college presidents in the future.

Since then, the college system has been reorganized into a new system that merged the boards of the dozen community colleges and four four-year state colleges.

Nothing in the new board’s bylaws delegates the authority to make decisions about a president’s tenure to the central office staff or the executive committee. State law requires that “the board shall establish terms and conditions of employment of its staff, prescribe their duties…”

Both DeNardis and Balducci said no discussion has taken place on the future of the presidents during a full board meeting.

College presidents were informed about their potential expedited exit from their posts during a private meeting Sept. 24. The full board met the following day, but the move was not discussed in public.

The lingering uncertainty on the MCC campus created by Glickman’s email to her faculty and the ensuing media coverage has fueled a demand for answers from some faculty members.

“Given that we only know what we know from [Glickman’s] communication and we don’t have any information from the Board of Regents or the Governor’s office to confirm or deny the allegations, I am asking all of you to contact your legislative representatives and raise … questions,” wrote Carl Stafford, an MCC culinary instructor in an email circulated to the faculty this week.

“We have not really been told what the plan is or if there really is a transitional plan,” Stafford wrote. “Our legislators need to know that we hold them accountable for the votes they make… I’m concerned about recent events and feel that by removing the president, we as a campus community lose significant representation and voice.”

The new law will limit non-credit remedial enrollment beginning in the fall of 2014 to one semester and requires more than a standardized entrance exam to determine who must take these non-credit courses. Figures from the Board of Regents show that 70 percent of the students who enroll in community colleges have been determined to have not been adequately prepared in high school, and will be required to first take remedial courses.

When the bill was debated in the General Assembly, several legislators referred to these remedial courses as the colleges’ Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years — twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.