Embattled Board of Regents chief resigns

Robert A. Kennedy, the embattled president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, announced his resignation Friday morning, effective immediately.

Kennedy, who was recruited last year by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to lead the new consolidation of the higher education system, bowed to mounting pressure for his resignation after disclosures he unilaterally approved executive pay raises without board approval.

"The issues with which we've dealt over the past few days have become a distraction to that important work, and, as an educator all my life, the most important thing to me is the success and support of our students," Kennedy said. "For that reason, I believe my resignation will allow the critical issues of the Board and its agenda to be addressed in a different light than they might otherwise be."

In resigning a day after bipartisan legislative calls for his depature, Kennedy was showing the political sensitivity he acknowledged lacking when he awarded raises, including $48,000 to his executive vice president, at a time when other state employees face a pay freeze.

His resignation was announced shortly after 10 a.m., five days after the raises were first disclosed by The Mirror.

Kennedy's problems over the raises were compounded by legislative anger over the disclosure that he was absent from the central office for six weeks last summer, using a clause in his contract that he said was for "professional development" to work remotely from a second home in Minnesota.

Another misstep included disclosure that the community college presidents were being offered "expedite[d]" separations, after the central office insisted that the presidents were not being offered a "buyout."

Kennedy, 65, had been hired to head the new merged public college system, which has 100,000 students and includes the four Connecticut State University campuses, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak College. Only the University of Connecticut is outside the system.

His contract was up to five years.

"It's a job of a lifetime," Kennedy said on the day Malloy announced he would be the new system's first president. Kennedy was president of the University of Maine at the time.

"Bob is the right person to lead us in a new direction," Malloy said that day in the state Capitol complex. "Bob turned the University of Maine into a job engine... Leadership starts from the top."

In Kennedy's one-sentence resignation letter to Board of Regents Chairman Lewis Robinson Jr., he announced he will be waiving the 120 days of pay his contract requires.

"After taking some time to think about what is in the best interest of our state and this new organization, our colleges and universities, the faculty, staff, presidents and, of course, our students, I have decided to submit my resignation to Board Chairman Lewis J. Robinson this morning," Kennedy wrote in a prepared statement.

"I do so with a heavy heart, understanding that this isn't the way in which I thought my tenure would end in Connecticut, but also with a great deal of optimism that, ultimately, the Board of Regents for Higher Education will succeed greatly in its efforts to move a change agenda focused on preparing students for the global economy in which they will compete, and becoming a critical partner in the state's workforce development efforts," he said.

Malloy, who delivered a pointed message to the Regents' board Thursday urging a close review of Kennedy's actions, said, "Bob's decision is the right one."

In a prepared statement Friday, the governor said:

"It's unfortunate that the events of the past week have damaged the credibility of the central office, but they have. And that credibility needs to be restored as quickly as possible. As I said yesterday, it is now time for the Board to step in and take whatever actions are necessary to restore confidence and credibility in the central office."

The regents' system president first came under heavy fire late Tuesday when he admitted that he had "mistakenly" authorized 21 executive pay raises without board approval. Those increases, which totaled almost $300,000, also sparked legislative outrage, coming while most state employees are in the second year of a two-year wage freeze.

The most controversial of those increases was a nearly $50,000 bump for the second-highest administrator in the system, Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti, whose salary rose from $183,339 to $232,244. On Tuesday, one day after The Mirror disclosed the raise, Meotti announced he would relinquish it.

The other raises Kennedy approved have also been suspended.

Other reactions

The top Republican in the state Senate, Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, called Thursday for Meotti's resignation.

And when the four leaders of the legislature's Higher Education Committee issued a bipartisan call Thursday for Kennedy to step down, they also insisted that the Board of Regents investigate Meotti's pay increase.

"Dr. Kennedy's resignation was a necessary first step, but Senator McKinney continues to believe Michael Meotti's ability to lead the higher education system is also compromised and he needs to resign," Senate Republican Caucus spokesman Brett Cody said Friday.

"It is unfortunate that President Kennedy's brief tenure had to end this way, but it is in the best interests of the higher education system and everyone else involved," House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk said. "I applaud Mr. Kennedy for recognizing the dire nature of the developments of the last few weeks."

Cafero added that "a full inquiry by the Higher Education Committee is still warranted to answer questions regarding the tenure of the 12 community college presidents. Two college presidents have stated publicly that their future employment was directly linked to the Oct. 31 deadline to respond to offers of an early buyout. "

Kennedy, whose base salary was $340,000, also faced several 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."

But he took no courses or did any academic research or writing. He spent his time in Minnesota, where he and his wife have a home, and said it would be more accurate to described that time as working remotely, rather than doing professional development.

Cafero said Thursday that the Board of Regents, and not just Kennedy, weakened its credibility by allowing this arrangement. "For six weeks, did anyone say: 'Where's Bob?'"

Several Republican legislators are calling for legislative hearings on what happened, why the appointed Board of Regents was absent for the decisions surrounding the pay raises and the "expedite[d]" separation offers made to community college presidents.

"The relationship between the Board of Regents and the central staff and figuring just who is in charge must be settled," Cafero said Friday.

The co-chairwomen of the Higher Education Committee said they have not ruled out having a hearing on these missteps.

Democratic Sen. Beth Bye, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she welcomed the resignation.

"Unfortunately, Dr. Kennedy's recent missteps have become too much of a distraction to our students and on our campuses," she said.

"We did our due diligence by meeting with the Board of Regents leadership, by talking with professors and students and Regents members, by asking tough questions and demanding strict accountability. We acted in an informed and deliberative manner, and I believe our nonpolitical approach contributed to Dr. Kennedy's decision to resign.

The panel's other co-chairwoman, Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, added, "I think it was the right step for him to take. We wanted this resolved as quickly as possible so we can move on."

Bye added, "I now look forward to the Board of Regents establishing guidelines and procedures to ensure that Dr. Kennedy's errors are not repeated, and that our ongoing higher education reorganization for the betterment of students proceeds in a timely and efficient manner."

The board has a meeting scheduled for 2:30 today at the higher education offices at 61 Woodland St. in Hartford.

While Kennedy absorbed considerable criticism this week, Malloy said the departing president also deserves praise.

"There have been many accomplishments at the Board over the last year, and Bob deserves a lot of credit for those accomplishments. He's a smart, decent, thoughtful individual who has spent many years working to improve education systems. Our state universities, community and technical colleges are better off for Bob having spent the last year here in Connecticut, and I thank him for his service.

Robinson also thanked Kennedy in a prepared statement for his service.

"I'm sure this was not an easy decision at which to arrive, but I appreciate his willingness to put our students first. Since meeting him, I have appreciated President Kennedy's commitment to our change agenda, his willingness to move it forward, and his commitment to the principles of an affordable, accessible higher education experience for the students in our state. I wish him the best," he said.

Read the full statements surrounding the resignation.