Higher education board gives new president same pay — minus expensive perks — as ousted chief

Former University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin will earn the same $340,000 annual salary as his predecessor — but none of the additional lucrative incentives — in exchange for leading the state’s embattled, merged public college system on a temporary basis.

Besides authorizing Austin’s compensation package, the Board of Regents for Higher Education also voted Thursday to reinstate two controversial pay hikes for two top executives. A board sub-panel recommended the move, arguing these increases — unlike 19 others — actually were stipends properly authorized by the full board to reflect significantly increased responsibilities.

The regents approved Austin’s pay without public discussion following a one-hour-and-40-minute closed-door session. The board had nominated Austin on Oct. 12 to replace Robert A. Kennedy, who resigned as president on the same day amid a trio of controversies.

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Board of Regents Chairman Lewis Robinson says the goal is to have a new permanent president by the start of the next academic year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy then appointed the former UConn president to the post. Malloy had contacted Austin and asked him to become interim leader of the system that includes the community college and state university networks and Charter Oak State College.

Lewis Robinson Jr., chairman of the Board of Regents, said Thursday he expects Austin to be at the helm for roughly five to six months as the board conducts a thorough search for a permanent successor. “The real target” Robinson added, “is to make sure we have the next president in place before the start of the academic year” in late August 2013.

Austin led UConn for 11 years, through September 2007, overseeing much of the major capital overhaul of the main Storrs campus and satellite branches. He also returned to UConn as interim president in May 2010 after the short tenure of President Michael Hogan and more recently served as the interim leader of the UConn Health Center in Farmington. Austin participated in Thursday’s meeting by telephone but was not immediately available for comment afterward.

Robinson said Austin did not seek any compensation beyond the $340,000 annual pay that had been granted to Kennedy — a salary that recently drew bipartisan criticism from leaders of the state legislature’s Higher Education Committee.

Kennedy’s compensation package was negotiated in September 2011 by Malloy’s office. The governor also had named Kennedy, who had been leading the University of Maine, as interim president of the regents’ system in late August 2011.

Besides the $340,000 annual salary, that deal included several other perks that drew criticism, including:

  • $25,000 for a first-year performance bonus;
  • $25,000 per year in unvouchered expenses, both in 2011-12 and 2012-13. (Kennedy recently returned the $25,000 expense payment for the current fiscal year.);
  • $19,274 to cover moving expenses from Maine. (Austin lives in West Hartford and won’t need to relocate to work in the regents’ office in Hartford.);
  • And use of an SUV valued at $36,863. That also has been returned.

Perhaps the most controversial perk in Kennedy’s deal was a provision that he said allowed him to work remotely for six weeks this past summer from his home in Minnesota.

“There will be none of that in this contract,” Robinson said of the various incentives granted Kennedy.

Shortly before he resigned, Kennedy also was linked to two other controversies that erupted in September in the regents’ system.

The first involved reports that the system’s central office had made “expedite[d]” separation offers” to the state’s 12 community college presidents.

Shortly after that, Kennedy acknowledged that he had “mistakenly” ordered 21 pay increases in the central office within the past 10 months — all without board approval.

Those increases totaled almost $300,000. And while they came as part of an administrative reorganization that saved $5 million, they also sparked legislative outrage. That’s because they were ordered while most of the state government faces a pay freeze and after the regents’ system had raised tuition and cut student aid.

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Board of Regents members (l-r) Naomi Cohen, Lewis Robinson, Merle Harris (back to camera), Yvette Melendez and Michael Pollard. Not shown is board member Richard Balducci, who was also in attendance.

The second-highest ranking administrator in the regents’ system, Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti, also resigned Oct. 12. Meotti had received one of the largest increases, worth nearly $50,000 per year.

All pay hikes were suspended, and the regents appointed a three-member Special Committee on Administration to begin reviewing compensation issues and executive positions.

The committee is expected to take several months to assess those pay increases, the added responsibilities given to staff and compensation granted to executives in comparable higher education systems in other states.

But Thursday, acting on the committee’s recommendations, the regents decided two of those controversial increases should stand.

The board voted to reinstate a total of $96,000 in annual compensation: $48,000 each for Elsa Nunez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University and vice president for the state colleges at the system office, and for David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College and vice president for the community colleges at the system office.

These additional funds should be referred to as “stipends” and not “raises” said board member Naomi Cohen, who is chairwoman of the special committee. With that additional compensation, Nunez now will earn $347,460, up 16 percent, and Levinson will earn $252,188, up 24 percent.

The regents were required by state law to create two new vice president posts to help oversee the community college and state university networks, respectively.

Kennedy had recommended Nunez and Levinson, and the regents had discussed their compensation during a closed-door executive session in May. And though a subsequent board vote at the same time authorized the post, the raises weren’t mentioned in the motion voted on in public, Cohen said, adding that “unfortunately, we (regents) weren’t the most artful drafters of language.”

The board’s intention was clear nonetheless, she said, adding that the stipends were properly authorized. The presidents also had signed letters of agreement with the system recognizing their new duties.

“Reinstating these individuals in these roles makes sense,” said Yvette Melendez, vice chairwoman of the full board and a member of the special committee.

Cohen said the presidents were given these additional roles because they have the necessary experience to “hit the ground running.”

“Had David and Elsa not accepted double-breasted roles at $48,000 each, two [vice presidents] would have cost roughly $200,000 each,” the regent’s system’s communications director, Colleen Flanagan Johnson said earlier this month.

Nunez wrote her faculty and staff last week to explain the justification for the raise she has been receiving since April.

“Part of the rationale for selecting two sitting presidents to also serve as vice presidents was the realization of significant cost savings,” she wrote, noting her increase in compensation should not be called a raise, but a “stipend/salary adjustment.”

Cohen confirmed that assessment Thursday.

When the question was asked as to how the $48,000 level was determined, Robinson responded, “I am not a compensation expert.”

After the meeting he told reporters that the increased pay is deserved.

“If we are asking them to take on additional work, then I think it’s only fair to assess the value of that work,” he said.

Also Thursday, the board empowered Austin to hire an interim chief of staff to assist during his tenure.

Flanagan Johnson, who was one of the 21 officials to receive a pay hike last month that was later suspended, was supposed to become chief of staff and earn an extra $20,000 per year.

But Robinson said Flanagan Johnson recently asked that the job switch be reversed so that Austin would be free to select his own chief.

The regents’ approved a salary for the interim chief “not to exceed” $129,000 per year. Robinson said Austin could select a candidate either from outside or from within the regents’ system. But if the next chief is taken from within the system and currently earns less than $129,000, Robinson said whether that employee receives the full compensation level will depend on how much added responsibility is assigned.

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