Gregory Gray is familiar with crisis management.
Ten minutes on the job of leading a three-campus community college system just outside Los Angeles, his phone rang with an emergency message from the vice chancellor.
“We have to cut $16.5 million from our budget this week,” Gray recalled of the conversation. He was told he would need to shrink his budget by 8 percent. “And I have been involved in that type of budget problem almost every day since that time.”
Gray, a Western Pennsylvania native with more than 40 years experience, is about to step into another storm in Connecticut come July 1 when he becomes the president of the state’s largest college system.
“The first thing for the new president to do, without question, is to restore trust and integrity to the system,” he said.
That was the same message he was sharing with those who attended the Board of Regents meeting Thursday where they unanimously approved his three-year contract.
“I pledge that to every person in this room today,” he said.
The 100,000-student, 16-campus system in Connecticut was the center of public backlash after a series of missteps were disclosed last fall, including the unauthorized granting of double-digit percentage salary increases for central office staff and the disclosure that the then-president was “working remotely” during the summer from his vacation home in Minnesota.
The move by the governor and General Assembly to merge the community colleges and state universities into one system — while cutting state support by 15.3 percent — also didn’t play well with many faculty and students.
“Across the state, across the nation, stop this war on education,” about 200 students and faculty chanted in protest outside a recent Board of Regents meeting.
The 15 voting members of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, volunteers bruised from the turmoil, state legislators and the governor are all relying on Gray to lead the system to better days.
“He comes in fresh, with a fresh set of eyes on how to improve the system,” said Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “He comes in with credibility from all his experience.”
Gray’s experience ranges from leading the 20,000 full-time student Riverside system to managing a community college in the Miami Dade system in Florida. He also ran a satelitte campus in the Penn State University system for eight years. (See his full resume here.)
In California, faced with $60 million in cuts over four years from the state — a 30 percent falloff in his budget — Gray turned to his number one expense for some savings: faculty and staff.
During the first two years of his nearly four-year tenure at the Riverside Community College District, the college system shed 201 full-time staff and 85 part-time positions, a 14 percent reduction, the U.S. Department of Education reports.
The result has been much fewer courses offered, and 7,000 students being turned away last fall, Gray, said.
“I wish we would have had some other choice. I am absolutely not proud of having to turn so many students away,” he said.
But for the students who remain, the “golden handshakes” Gray offered to entice the more expensive and experienced faculty to retire early has been devastating, the former leader of the faculty organization on campus said.
“He reduced conflict by picking on easy targets,” said Richard Mahon, a humanities professor. “The results were the [staff vacancies] that came up were not evenly distributed across the departments. We are left with an unbalanced system… It is an open question whether we have the English courses we need for a student to graduate,” Mahon said, who would have preferred a strategy to protect core courses and priority majors that the workforce demands.
Keenan Johnson, a student at the college, had such difficulty getting a seat in required classes that he said he was likely going to be forced to push back graduating and moving onto his bachelor’s degree for a year, the Press-Enterprise, the local newspaper, reported.
“They just let in as many people as can get in, and you can’t get on any rides,” Johnson told the paper.
Gray acknowledged that this is still the situation, as California law requires open access to everyone.
“First come, first served,” Gray said, noting how heartbreaking it is for him.
The chairwoman of the Riverside governing board, Virginia Blumenthal, said Gray did the best he could given the bleak budget he was handed on day one.
“Under his leadership we have survived the war. He did an incredible job,” she said. “Our loss is your gain.” she said.
New system, new rules
As the new head of the state’s largest college system, Gray enters Connecticut’s higher education world during what the system’s finance chairman labels as a “dire” fiscal situation. Having had the system’s budget cut by nearly $50 million over the last two fiscal years, and no signs that the legislature will be restoring those dollars anytime soon, the regents raised tuition amidst student and faculty protests.
They did so while noting that more would need to be cut on top of the 400 positions they’ve already shed.
In California, Gray’s board did not have the authority to approve tuition increases, as state lawmakers held that power. Gray said during an interview that he is going to do everything he can to avoid raising tuition further here. But in Connecticut his ability to control employee costs is limited, since the governor negotiates his labor contracts.
During Gray’s first three years in office, he will have to provide, on average, a 5 percent raises each year to the system’s 4,500 full-time instructors.
“I am not going to say it’s not going to be challenging, because it is,” he said. “There are opportunities now that need to be looked at… Certainly the idea of positions when they become vacant need to be very critically analyzed to see if they need to be continued and need to be adapted and changed.”
But for a governor adamant about increasing enrollment in higher education as a way to improve the economy, the idea of downsizing to cope with fiscal pressure will be a political hurdle.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who met with the three finalists for the job before Gray was named, said he thinks Gray is an excellent choice.
“I was absolutely impressed… I think he is a great collaborator. I think he is going to come in and take a long hard look and then come up with a plan,” Malloy told the Mirror this week.
Navigating the tough political landscape is not something that Gray ever mastered, Mahon, the former faculty leader at Riverside said.
“I think he struggled in California. It would take the most effective politician to master all the areas you need” to make the various stakeholders happy. “That experience here certainly will have prepared him for Connecticut,” he said.
Faced with drastic cuts, Gray had a reputation of displaying his displeasure with state politics.
“It’s time for the state to give community colleges what they need to do the job and get out of our way,” Gray wrote in an opinion piece in the Press-Enterprise in February 2011.
In Connecticut, college officials have not been so blunt in their criticism of legislators and the governor while incurring 15 percent reductions in state funding –- something several students called on the board to do while protesting another round of tuition increases.
“In my opinion, you’re not doing your job,” Eric Bergenn, a student at Central Connecticut State University, told the board in March.
Gray said he is “excited” to meet the challenge to ensure he doing what best for the students, and not just politically.
With his two children and three granddaughters living six hours away in upstate New York, Gray said the move here was a no-brainer for him and his wife Donna.
Gray said the fact that the Connecticut job is “the opportunity of a lifetime” also helped. He’s always wanted to run a statewide college system, which is why he also had applied recently for a job to run the Alabama community college system.
“I enjoy this stuff… So far in my life, I have never liked not going to work. I’ve never been fired, knock on wood. I’ve never had a vote of no confidence. Usually when I’ve left, people were somewhat sorry to see me go,” he said.
The neighborhood children may feel differently, as he is leaving them with his elaborate saltwater fish tank. During one of his previous moves, he attempted to transport his aquarium.
“I tried that once, and it didn’t work so well,” he said.
Gray is no stranger to Connecticut. After sending his son to Avon Old Farms boarding school, he was left with the “memories of New England in the fall, the quaint communities and the beautiful trees… I look forward to moving to Connecticut.”
As president, Gray will be earning $380,000 in Connecticut, a jump from the $293,600 in compensation his current contract provides in California. His current contract also provided $14,400 a year to cover business expenses.
The $410,000 annual compensation for the previous president of Connecticut system — who resigned amid the controversies — became a contentious issue for many state legislators, who were concerned it was too lucrative.
Board Chairman Lewis Robinson Jr. said this contract that was negotiated by the board instead of the governor’s office this time around is much more fiscally conservative.
“What you see in terms of the contract is a good example of how we are going about this differently,” he said of Gray’s contract, which provides a salary, health benefits, a vehicle, a gas card, one-time moving expenses and potentially an annual performance bonus determined by the board.
“And that’s about it,” Robinson said.