The board that leads the state's scandal-marred, merged public college system endorsed former University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin on Friday to help salvage its image -- a move prompted by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The Board of Regents of Higher Education, which accepted the resignation of embattled President Robert A. Kennedy, also promised that a special study panel would move quickly to address a trio of controversies that have arisen in recent weeks.
Michael P. Meotti, the executive vice president at the center of those controversies, resigned Friday night, hours after the board's chairman, Lewis Robinson Jr., said Meotti would remain as the system's second-highest-ranking administrator for now.
But Robinson was quick to add that the regents remain sensitive to the issues connected to Meotti -- who accepted a $48,000 raise earlier this year while the wages of most state government employees are frozen. Meotti has since decided to forgo the raise.
"Dr. Austin is an outstanding choice by the Board of Regents," Malloy wrote in a prepared statement issued late Friday afternoon. "His reputation is beyond reproach, and he will bring much needed stability to the Board of Regents central office the first day he walks in the door. He's also the right person to make sure the reforms that have started to be implemented continue."
Malloy, who called Austin Thursday night to ask him to take the assignment, also wrote that the former UConn president "has substantial higher education experience and is well-known in Connecticut for the leadership and vision he executed during his eleven-year tenure. ... He was instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn programs, and most recently served with the leadership of the UConn Health Center during a period of transition."
The regents nominated Austin in less than a minute after meeting for 45 minutes behind closed doors.
"Our marching orders are to [find a permanent president] as quickly as possible," Robinson said afterward. When asked to clarify who gave those "marching orders," he said they were "Mine. I am the chair."
Several procedural moves must occur before Austin can assume the top post, though officials in the regents' system said those are expected to happen in a matter of business days.
According to state law, the Board of Regents only issues nominations for its president, and the governor makes the appointment. Malloy indicated he would appoint Austin as soon as the board's nomination is received officially in his office.
Austin did not attend Friday's meeting and was not available immediately afterward for comment.
In a prepared statement, Austin called the temporary appointment, "an honor."
"The work ahead isn't going to be easy - change never is - but it's critically important that we move forward on the issues of college preparedness, career training and workforce development, to support Connecticut's economy and our state's residents," said said in the statement.
Austin's tenure at UConn is somewhat tarnished. State legislators were highly critical in 2006 of his involvement in the state's investment of a major construction overhaul at the campus, according to the Hartford Courant.
Robinson said he expects the search for the next president of the system to take 5 to 6 months.
From there the board would have to negotiate compensation with Austin. Robinson said Friday it was too soon to say how much Austin would be offered. Kennedy's compensation package, which some state legislators called excessive, was $340,000 per year with several other perks.
Austin, who served as president of UConn from 1996 to 2007, is no stranger to stepping in and leading a college system riddled with controversies. He became the interim president at UConn in May 2010 after the short tenure of President Michael Hogan. He also served more recently as the interim leader of the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
Had Austin not been tapped to take the top spot, the regents would face a sticky public relations problem.
That's because Kennedy's abrupt resignation Friday morning -- effective immediately -- left Meotti as the highest-ranking administrator in the system.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, had already called for Meotti's resignation.
And while the four leaders of the legislature's Higher Education Committee -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- stopped short of including Meotti Thursday when they issued a bipartisan call for Kennedy to step down, they also made it clear that Meotti wasn't off their radar screen.
Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, and Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, in particular said they were reserving judgment until they learned more from the Board of Regents about the recent controversies plaguing the system, but that the new panel had to take a close look at the executive vice president.
Robinson said the board had considered one other nominee besides Austin, but he declined to identify the individual other than to say it was not Meotti. "I think we are all very sensitized to the situation" surrounding Meotti, Robinson said.
Meotti did not attend the meeting, though Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College, was in attendance. Her email to her faculty about reported plans to potentially remove the system's 12 community college presidents began the first in a series of public controversies that reverberated through the system over the last two weeks.
The regents' system and its governing board both were shaken in recent weeks by the controversy surrounding the community college presidents and others, but board members were hopeful Friday afternoon that Austin's expected appointment would be the first step toward restoring public confidence.
"I can't think of anybody better," said former state House Speaker Richard J. Balducci, one of the 15 regents. "I think it was important for the board to take a position and show it is willing to move forward and put this behind us, and Dr. Austin is the right person for the job."
"We wanted a person with the academic credentials of Dr. Austin," said board Vice Chairwoman Yvette Melendez.
Kennedy this week admitted that he had "mistakenly" authorized not only Meotti's pay raise, but 20 executive compensation increases within the past 10 months -- all without board approval.
Those increases, which totaled almost $300,000 and have since been suspended, also sparked legislative outrage, coming not only amid the state government pay freeze, but after the regents' system had raised tuition and cut student aid.
Kennedy also faced questions this week about his absence from the state and central office for six weeks this past summer, while he exercised contract rights to "professional development." He disclosed this week that he had worked "remotely" from his home in Minnesota, but took no courses nor did any academic research or writing.
The first controversy to hit the higher education system, about two weeks ago, were reports that the system's central office had made "expedite[d]" separation offers" to the state's 12 community college presidents.
Several faculty members and students interested in that issue attended Friday's afternoon meeting in Hartford at a state office building, many of them upset with recent missteps by Kennedy's office and the lack of involvement and understanding from the appointed board.
"They're the board, we're the serfs. They're so removed," said Angelo Messore, a professor of political science and economics at Manchester Community College. "I would be surprised if those members up there have even stepped foot on campus before."
MCC student Chris D'Amore said, before news of Meotti's resignation, that Meotti and the 20 other central office executives who took raises should be dismissed. "Those who took salary increases during a wage freeze ... are trying to avoid their own personal responsibility," he said.
Robinson promised that a new three-member subcommittee of the board would begin investigating the issues raised by the controversy early next week -- another move aimed at shoring up public confidence in the regents' system.
The Special Committee on Administration will be chaired by board member Naomi Cohen. Melendez and board member Michael Pollard also will serve. All three regents are appointees of Malloy, who filled nine of the 15 slots on the Board of Regents. Two seats belong to college students elected by their peers, while the remaining four are named by state legislative leaders.
"I think these three, working together, will do a fine job," Robinson said, adding that while no firm timetable has been set for the group, it is expected to do its work promptly. "It's critical work. It has to be done properly."
The panel is expected not only to investigate the controversies, but also to propose policies to ensure that the board maintains control over executive raises in the future, he said.
Robinson added that he still has confidence in the entire system office until he learns "a reason we shouldn't have."