Finding a leader for state’s college system could be a challenge

As the deadline approaches to apply to become the next president of the state's largest public college system, officials are concerned they may have a hard time attracting top-tier candidates.

Because state law restricts the Board of Regents for Higher Education from entering into a contract that guarantees the future president will keep his or her job after the governor leaves office, whomever is selected will have job security for only one full school year.

After pleas from the board to change the law, the governor is asking state legislators to allow the appointed board to decide how long a president's contract will run.

A spokesman for the 100,000-student system said that Philip Austin, the system's interim president, spoke with the governor's office to request the change in law.

"[He] made the case to them that keeping the president's term conterminous with that of the governor's will limit the pool of candidates who apply, and may potentially impact the recommendation of a successful candidate," said Colleen Flanagan Johnson, the system's spokeswoman.

The deadline for applications for those interested in the job is Friday. Flanagan Thursday declined to provide details of how many people have applied so far.

"The activities/records of the personnel search committee are confidential," she wrote in an email.

The governor's proposed bill to change the law will be considered by the legislature's Higher Education Committee in the coming weeks.

Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she supports making the presidency as independent as possible from politics and gubernatorial control.

"Giving [the board] more authority in the decision process is something I support," the Democrat from Salisbury said.

The vacancy in the presidency at the college system followed a trio of controversies that led to the resignations of the system's two top officials in October.

State lawmakers have expressed concerns that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been too involved in selecting leaders for what should be an independent system.

The governor currently can fire the president of the 17-college system at any time. His proposed bill would remove the requirement that the president "serve at the pleasure of the governor."

The tension that developed between the board and past president because of this new law was apparent in a series of email exchanges provided to the Mirror last week in response to a Freedom of Information request.

In an email to the system's vice president, then-president Robert A. Kennedy laid out the power struggle he was experiencing with the board's chairman.

"He apparently didn't 'get' the message from the governor today, as I might have hoped. But then, he has missed that same message several times before too... I don't know how much longer I can continue to work with him (with, not for.)'," Kennedy wrote, underlining a portion of the email for emphasis.

Turnover at community colleges, too

Whether the presidents of the state's dozen community colleges were offered a "buyout" during the period of turmoil last September and October depends on whom you ask.

What is clear from the recently released emails is that four presidents had either set up private meetings with the head of human resources or had expressed interest in stepping down following a controversial meeting in September.

Additionally, the president of Quinebaug Valley Community College stepped down in December, and Three Rivers' president announced she will be leaving at the end of the school year.

Levinson, David

David Levinson, a vice president at the Board of Regents: 'The big idea for community colleges in CT.'

Gena Glickman and Barbara Douglass, the presidents of Manchester and Northwestern Connecticut community colleges respectively, have already made public that they met with Kennedy's proxy to find out what the central office was offering.

Their take on the events that transpired: It was a buyout and they risked termination if they did not accept.

The presidents of Capital and Tunxis community colleges also reached out to central office staff after the meeting, email documents provided to the Mirror show.

"We may get takers we hadn't counted on. We may need you to step into a presidency," Kennedy wrote to Steven Weinberger, the director of human resources following news that the Capital Community College president was considering the offer.

The emails exchanged between central office staff prior to the meeting with the community college presidents talk about a "big idea" followed by questions about who would "deliver the news" to them about "the plan."

Details are short on exactly what that plan involved, but David Levinson, a top official at the central office, emailed Kennedy, executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti and Weinberger two weeks before that meeting with some insight.

"After our conversation about the "big idea" for community colleges in CT, I had a pre-scheduled chit-chat with Steve Cohen, head honcho for the [community college faculty union]. Without any prompting, he spoke about the potential benefit of creating a single, uniform community college in CT. His only concern was the fate of the ACLs (mid-level administrators) who serve at all 12 campuses. Hypothetically, I then suggested what if we converted those administrative positions (most of which are not terribly useful) to faculty/support staff positions, as we've done with the savings from the consolidation, which would also create additional bargaining-unit members. Steve found the idea attractive. Let's re-group after Mike [Meotti] investigates his part of the equation," Levinson wrote.

In response, Kennedy wrote, "We will need to discuss this further. Mike, I bet you never knew that your radical ideas would be so welcome with the faculty?"

One week later, Meotti would request information from the staff on how much was being spent on instruction vs. administrative costs at the community colleges.

When news was circulating that the community college presidents were offered an "expedited" separation from their posts, rumors were circulating at the colleges that it was being done in an attempt to centralize the local offices into one. College officials adamantly denied that such a plan was in the works.

A spokesman for the college system on Thursday said a search for the current two open community college presidencies will begin as soon as a system president is selected.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe