Regents’ panel starts to take aim at staff compensation questions

Board of Regent members on the panel with the job of sorting out the trio of controversies that hit the 17-college system in recent weeks met Wednesday to begin mapping out a plan to avoid future missteps.

“I’d like to put a spotlight on what is the power that the president of the Board of Regents has. I would like to make it crystal clear…Put another way, so there is no repeat of what happened,” said Michael E. Pollard, one of the three members on the Special Committee on Administration.

The missteps involved former system President Robert A. Kennedy and his staff making decisions without their governing board’s approval. Kennedy resigned last week after reports that he unilaterally approved double-digit percentage raises for some of his administrators and offered community college presidents separation packages from the system. He also spent six weeks last summer at his vacation home in Minnesota working remotely, though his daily calendar shows few appointments.

But before a strategy can be formed to make sure the appointed board is making these decisions on pay and personnel — as state law dictates — the committee compiled a long list of questions it first needs answers to.

While committee members re-emphasized that all 21 of the controversial raises have been suspended, they also said it’s important to know what that means for the raises the employees have already received in their previous paychecks. They also want to know the rationale that lays behind each increase.

Were they tied to increased responsibilities? Was an adjustment made because a subordinate’s pay had surpassed a supervisor’s? Should the employees have to repay the raises they’ve already received? And how do the system office executive salaries compare with those at similar systems in states that match up demographically with Connecticut?

Did the former administration under Kennedy and Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti — both of whom resigned last week — use any kind of outside help when the raises were authorized? “I would want to know, do we still retain that kind of expertise?” panel member Yvette Melendez asked. And was it used, or did the former administration rely on “some other kind of criteria that was less objective?”

“I want to see how we stack up with other states,” Pollard said, adding that a database of state-by-state comparisons could be very helpful in determining compensation for the next administration.

Kennedy said last week that in determining the size of the raises, he looked what peer institutions were paying similar staff. Colleen Flanagan Johnson on Wednesday said the nearly $50,000 raise given to Meotti was based off of a salary survey of other system’s vice presidents conducted by the State Higher Education Executive Officers organization.

How the remaining raises were determined, Flanagan Johnson said in an email that “Some of them were done using the personnel rules/policies of the prior boards, and others were handled on an individual basis. As you know, they all will be reviewed for appropriateness and determined to be warranted or not.”

After news of the raises broke last week, some leaders of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee criticized Kennedy’s $340,000 annual salary and other of his benefits.

“I’m also shocked at Dr. Kennedy’s compensation package. It is disturbing to me that the Board of Regents’ central office seems to be operating on a completely different basis than most other state agencies, in terms of salary and benefits,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said last week.

Panel members said they plan to look at whether the president’s contract — which was negotiated by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office and could not be amended by the board — is an appropriate model to offer the system’s next president.

And while the questions the committee is tackling are politically sticky, most also are complicated in terms of policy. That means the panel needs to work with two different timetables:

  • A series of reports to the full board, delivered by December, outlining how raises were crafted and approved without full consent from the Board of Regents. How community college presidents were offered “expedite[d]” separations from the system without Regents’ knowledge. And finally, to look at what the terms of the previous president’s contract were, and whether they were specific enough and/or too generous.
  • And a more long-range look at executive compensation throughout the system, comparing personnel policies in the Connecticut State University system and at the community colleges, and creating Board of Regents personnel policies for central office.

“I think there is a great interest in having this ad hoc committee go forward as quickly as possible,” said Naomi Cohen, panel chairwoman, adding that the panel has to be equally cautious about issuing recommendations without adequate research. “We need to really have good information rather than just making decisions and looking at the information later,” she said. “I think it’s a balancing act.”

But Cohen also said she would ask the full Board of Regents to establish the Special Committee on Administration as a permanent sub-panel of the board because some of the issues it is grappling with have long-range implications that go beyond resolving the current controversies.

“We want to have a full understanding of what (personnel and compensation) policies currently exist,” Melendez said, questioning whether executive-level raises follow the same policies in all components of the merged system, and — if not — how things can be unified in a consistent approach. “There has to be something for all, not just one part of the system.”