Legislators vote to rescind governor’s power to appoint college president

The General Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a bill that revokes the governor’s authority to appoint the president of the state’s largest public college system. The bill, instead, will place the responsibility of selecting a president and setting all the employment terms for the leader solely with the 15-member Board of Regents.

The top position at the 100,000-student system is currently vacant following a series of missteps made by the college leaders Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put into office. The president and vice president of the system resigned last October after disclosures that several top officials were awarded double-digit percentage raises, that President Robert Kennedy spent several weeks “working remotely” from his second home in Minnesota, and that the community college presidents’ jobs were being threatened.

The bill approved Thursday by the Senate in a 28-8 vote is one of several bills aimed at addressing the controversies.

“This bill gets us to the point where we can hire a new president… This bill is really important for our higher education system to turn the page,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Higher Education, before the vote.

The governor plans to sign the bill into law.

While supportive of the bill to limit the governor’s influence in naming a college president, several legislators are asking when the other bills to increase oversight of the 17-college system will be voted on.

“A lot of people are cynical about whether we are making the changes we need to make,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

“This is an important step, but I would underscore that it is just one step in a movement to a more open, transparent, accountable process that has a stain on it,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R- Wilton, the minority leader on the Higher Education Committee.

Two bills aimed at increasing transparency in higher education spending are awaiting action by the House and Senate. Legislators also said they are considering changing the makeup of who gets to appoint the members of the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

One bill would require the Board of Regents to report how they are spending the thousands of dollars they receive each year to cover their job-related travel and entertainment expenses. Another would require public colleges and universities to regularly report to lawmakers how the salaries of administrative positions compare to their peer institutions and the student-to-administrator ratio.

The General Assembly has seven weeks to pass the bills before the session ends and it is unclear whether the governor will sign them into law.

“It is the most galling and glaring of errors when we allow our system to get out of control without controls… When you have men and women who are scraping to get by, and they are reading about $400,000 per year compensation being given to individuals who by contract were allowed to take nine weeks off and go fishing,” Cafero said when the bill passed the House last week. “That is the epitome — the epitome — of why people dislike the governmental process… We have to make darn sure those kind of things don’t happen again. Now this is a first step.”

Those legislators who spoke in opposition to the bill said they were voting no because it didn’t go far enough and was placing too much autonomy in a board that has already failed once.

“There really is no recourse in this bill for this legislature, this body, to have any input,” Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven said last week. “We are giving too much authority to the Board of Regents… We need to protect our students and I don’t think we are doing that.”

Earlier this month, the Regents forwarded the names of three presidential candidates for the governor to interview. Although Malloy has the authority to do so under current law, his spokesman said the governor will not make an appointment before signing the bill limiting his authority.

“He is going to sign the bill. It’s going to be the regent’s decision,” Malloy’s spokesman Andrew Doba said.

Malloy still plans to meet with the finalists in the coming weeks.

Under current law, the board must recommend the president. The governor can confirm that recommendation or reject it. If the latter happens, then the process starts over.

A spokeswoman for the college system said that the board will meet and appoint their next president “within the next few weeks.”

“Given that the Board is currently in the process of selecting the next president, they are thankful to both the House and Senate for passing this bill quickly,” Colleen Flanagan Johnson wrote in a statement.