The Board of Regents for Higher Education voted unanimously Friday to name Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, as interim president of Connecticut’s largest system of public colleges and universities.
Ojakian will start Sept. 28 and can serve for up to two years on an interim basis under the terms of the board’s action, but his tenure may well be an audition for a permanent appointment.
“We’ll see how he does,” said Nicholas M. Donofrio, the board chairman. Asked if he expected Ojakian to be a candidate for a permanent appointment, he replied, “There’s no reason he couldn’t.”
Ojakian said nothing definitive when asked if he expected to be a candidate for the permanent post.
“We’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Ojakian said.
Ojakian will be paid up to $335,000 annually, a hefty raise over his $189,000 salary as chief of staff, a post he’s held for all but the first year of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s nearly five years in office.
The appointment was no surprise: Ojakian, 61,was first mentioned as a likely interim leader of the system on July 13, the same day he confirmed he would step down as the top aide to Malloy by year’s end.
That also was the day that The Mirror reported the Regents were preparing for the eventual departure of its president, Gregory W. Gray, who notified the board on Aug. 14 in a one-sentence resignation letter he would leave by Dec. 31.
After meeting in executive session, the board emerged to accept Gray’s resignation and then appoint Ojakian, who arrived to applause as soon as the vote was taken. The board took no action to begin a search for a permanent successor, nor did it resolve whether Gray would receive severance.
Gray will remain on the board’s payroll as an adviser until Dec. 31, but he will relinquish the title and duties of president on Sept. 28, the day Ojakian begins work, Donofrio said.
“I look forward to working with all of you,” Ojakian told the board. “I am a very, very collaborative person. I like to communicate with everybody. I see this as a team effort under your direction, and I look forward to working with all of your college presidents, all the faculty and students to make sure the system moves forward in a very positive way.”
Donofrio reiterated Friday that Gray’s decision to resign was voluntary and that the floating of Ojakian’s name a month ago as a potential successor was a rumor, not evidence of a done deal.
“Nothing was orchestrated,” Donofrio said.
Donofrio said he had been having conversations with Gray for some time about whether he would remain, given clashes with faculty and some legislators. Teaching staff at all four regional Connecticut State Universities and seven of the community colleges had cast votes of no confidence in Gray’s leadership.
A particular point of contention was a plan for the future of the college system that Gray hired consultants to develop. Faculty feared that plan would strip them of their academic independence.
Donofrio acknowledged keeping Ojakian generally abreast of his conversations with Gray, but not to suggest that Ojakian consider taking Gray’s job.
“There’s been a series of ongoing conversations with Greg. This doesn’t happen overnight,” Donofrio said. “He is a serious man. He’s got his own life to plan. All along, I was consistently suggesting, ‘Look, Greg, you have to make up your mind. What do you want to do? Are you up to the task? Are you comfortable?’ I talk to Mark weekly. Why not? The governor is an important leader. We have to make sure we have people up to speed as to what we’re doing and what we’re not doing, so I’m sure I said to Mark that Greg is certainly thinking through his options.”
Donofrio said he was unaware that Ojakian was stepping down as chief of staff until July 13, the day it was publicly announced.
Even if he only serves the two years, Ojakian could become the longest serving leader of the young college system: Since the state’s dozen community colleges, four regional state universities and an online college merged into the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system three years ago, it has had two presidents and two interim leaders.
The merger was a Malloy initiative.
Ojakian generally was praised Friday, but students and a faculty member said the general hope was that the board ultimately would name a president with significant experience in higher education.
“I hear that he’s a competent administrator, and that’s a hopeful sign,” said Bob Brown, a Tunxis Community College history professor and co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee. “I don’t know how to assess his connection to the governor, whether that influences the system. I’d like not to speculate about that.”
“We need a leader that has managerial and academic experience to keep the CSCU system alive and well,” said Wyatt Bosworth, Central Connecticut State University’s representative to the student advisory committee.
John I. Board, a Western Connecticut State University student and former advisory committee member, said the system is at a crossroads, with students questioning the value of the merger in the face of tuition increases.
No one has seen the promised efficiencies, he said.
“Everyone is losing patience,” he said. “I think this is the last opportunity.”
Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the co-chair of the legislative committee that oversees higher education, said she was keeping an open mind about the possibility of a leader without traditional higher ed credentials.
“I think stability and consistency is certianly a strength at this point,” said Willis, who noted other college systems nationally have chosen leaders from government. “I think at this point someone with administrative experience is certainly a strong point in someone’s favor. The ability to listen, communicate and build trust right now are really the critical skill sets someone needs at this time.”