After missteps, lawmakers move for more oversight of state’s universities

Legislators have asked the governor to sign into law two bills that would increase their oversight over the state’s public colleges and universities — their reaction to a series of problems revealed at the state’s largest public college system last fall.

“The genesis of this bill is really [from] some of the concerns around salaries and commensurate compensation for higher education officials in the state of Connecticut,” said state Sen.  Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. “We wanted to get our arms around what was happening in our higher education institutions in terms of both compensation and the ratio of administrators to students.” The Senate unanimously approved the measure.

The state public colleges historically have operated autonomously, rather than under legislative oversight. But then the lawmakers learned that several central office staff at the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (ConnSCU) received double-digit percentage pay raises while the rest of the state’s workforce was in the middle of a years-long pay freeze. They also expressed concerns about the compensation and benefits higher education officials have been receiving when tuition continues to rise faster than inflation.

The bills, approved almost unanimously in both chambers of the General Assembly, would require both ConnSCU and the University of Connecticut, which is run by a separate governing board, to come before the legislature’s Higher Education and Appropriations committees annually to answer questions about their proposed and/or adopted budgets. Higher education officials would also be required to regularly report their student-to-administrator ratios, how their systems compare to similar college systems, and how much they are paying their administrators.

“This really is the product of many issues that surrounded the compensation in the higher education system… This really addresses some of those concerns,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, minority leader on the Higher Education Committee. “I think this is very helpful.”

Another oversight bill stalled, however. It would have forbidden public universities from giving administrators lump sum payments to cover various unidentified and unreported job-related expenses. Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the House chair of the Higher Education Committee, said that measure became a non-issue after officials at ConnSCU promised they would soon be ending that practice.

Willis said requiring college officials to come before lawmakers to explain their budgets is a necessary step.

“I think this will be a good indicator and help us be better planners and decision-makers because if we see there is a deficiency in their present budget, we can maybe suggest they need to fix it in their proposed budget,” Willis said on the floor of the House before one of the bills was approved this week.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, also praised the reporting requirements.

“It is very important to have this study done in order to evaluate public higher education’s relative position,” he said on the floor of the Senate. “If a university, or your system is seen as being top-heavy administratively, that is a sign of poor management and wasted resources.”

It is unclear if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will sign either bill.