WILLIMANTIC – David G. Carter, head of the Connecticut State University System, announced Tuesday he will retire next year after more than two decades in the system, including the last four years as its chancellor.

The surprise announcement came after a tumultuous year for Carter, who, along with the system’s Board of Trustees, has been under fire from the legislature and others over the handling of the removal of Southern Connecticut State University President Cheryl Norton.

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Carter made the announcement during a press conference on science programs at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he was president for 17 years before becoming chancellor of the system’s four universities in 2006.

“This is probably, next to when I discovered I had cancer in ’93, the most difficult moment in my life,” he said as he announced he would step down no later than next September.

The 67-year-old Carter, known for his gregarious style with students and his relentless lobbying for the system, generated strong emotions among supporters and critics alike.

As chancellor, he oversaw a system that expanded even as the state economy began slumping, forcing strains on the university budget. Officials report that full-time enrollment has reached record levels, graduation rates have improved, and more students have stayed in the system for graduate study.

Carter has drawn strong support from leaders of the Board of Trustees, including Chairman Karl Krapek, who only last week had talked about Carter’s efforts to lead the system through an increasingly tough state economy.

“We believe he’s the right person to lead the system, especially at this time,” Krapek said at a meeting of the Board of Trustees.

Krapek did not attend Tuesday’s press conference but issued a statement saying, “I have never been associated with anyone who works harder, cares more deeply or understands the challenges and opportunities of higher education more thoroughly than David Carter.”

However, Carter and the trustees had come under criticism recently from Gov. M. Jodi Rell after announcing raises of up to 10 percent for top officials, including Carter and the presidents of the four universities. The board, responding to Rell, reduced the raises to 5 percent.

Carter also has been at the center of a controversy over the removal of Norton, who was forced out earlier this year at Southern. Her removal came only weeks after the trustees approved a policy allowing Carter to remove presidents without a vote of the Board of Trustees and with only the consent of the board chairman.

Norton’s removal was the subject of a tense hearing last spring before a legislative committee, where some lawmakers contended that Carter had usurped the power of the board.

Carter said he decided to step down in order to spend more time with his two young grandchildren.

Richard Balducci, a university trustee and former state legislator, said he learned of Carter’s decision only hours before Tuesday’s press conference.

“I thought he was joking when he told me. He will be sorely missed,” said Balducci, who described Carter as a tenacious fighter for the university system.

“You know what? Sometimes he gets to be controversial, but he’s a leader. . . .There’s no doubt he’s been a leader,” he said. “I think everybody knows him. They don’t always agree with him, but they have to respect him and his efforts, and he’s always done his homework, and he’s been good for our system. He’s been good for the state of Connecticut.”

At CSU’s central office, Carter runs a system that has wrestled with rising costs, tight state budgets, and pressure to build enrollment. He has overseen a major construction program on the system’s four campuses in New Britain, New Haven, Danbury and Willimantic.

The university system, like other state agencies, is facing a severe budget crisis as the state projects a $3.4 billion deficit next year.

“I think he’s the right guy to lead the university system through the challenging times ahead, and I know that he will make it the smoothest of transitions to whomever the new chancellor will be,” said John Sholtis, a member of the Board of Trustees.

Lawrence McHugh, former chairman of the CSU system board and now chairman of the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees, issued a statement calling Carter “a role model for dedication to higher education and a gifted education leader, one who not only dares to dream, but possesses the talent and tenacity to realize even the most challenging goals.”

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury and co-chairman of the legislature’s higher education committee, was not aware of Carter’s decision until later Tuesday. “Wow, I was just with him last Friday,” she said.

She cited Carter’s role in leading a $1.3 billion construction program on CSU’s campuses. “I do feel Chancellor Carter can feel good about his accomplishments. He’s leaving behind four really strong state universities. . . .Our investment in those schools is critical to our workforce development.”

Before becoming chancellor, Carter headed Eastern’s campus at Willimatic, leading an effort to identify Eastern as the state’s main public residential liberal arts college. He attempted to broaden the school’s appeal, increasing the percentage of minority students, recruiting more foreign students and expanding the number of minority faculty and staff.

He was widely known for his efforts to encourage students whose low income, marginal academic record or family circumstances might otherwise prevent them from attending college.

At Eastern, Carter became the first African American to head a four-year college in Connecticut, overseeing an ambitious construction and renovation effort there.

The CSU system enrolls about 36,500 part-time and full-time students.

Carter began his career as a teacher and principal in Dayton, Ohio and worked in administrative jobs at the University of Connecticut before being named Eastern’s president in 1988.

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