From his office at the University of Maine, the soon-to-retire president, Robert A. Kennedy, read with interest last spring about a controversial higher-education merger proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in Connecticut, never imagining that Malloy already was interested in him to lead the new system.

Then his phone rang.

“He called my secretary. He left his office and cell phone number,” Kennedy said of Malloy, whose administration had identified Kennedy as a leader who shared the governor’s interest in tying higher education to economic development. “I was certain to call him right back. It’s a job of a lifetime.”

Kennedy Robinson

Robert A. Kennedy (L), Lewis Robinson

At age 64, when Kennedy seemed set for the relaxed life of a university president emeritus after an academic career that took him to six of the top 20 public universities, he is moving to Connecticut to reshape major elements of higher education.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity,” Kennedy said.

Malloy introduced Kennedy on Monday as the new interim president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, an appointment that cannot be made permanent until after Jan. 1, when the regents are to send Malloy their list of three recommendations.

The governor, who names a majority of the new 15-member board, smiled and said he was optimistic that Kennedy’s name would be on the list. Michael P. Meotti, the former commissioner of higher education and current interim president, will become the executive vice president of the new system, reporting to Kennedy.

“I certainly will be recomending Mr. Kennedy to the Board of Regents with the…very great hope they’ll agree with this decison,” Malloy said.

Lewis Robinson, the chairman of the new Board of Regents, called Kennedy “a great fit for this new position.”

Malloy and legislators agreed April 27 on a plan to merge the four-campus Connecticut State University system, the dozen community colleges and the online Charter Oak College. The next week, Kennedy was on the phone with Malloy arranging a time for them to meet.

“Bob is the right person to lead us in a new direction,” Malloy said. “Bob turned the University of Maine into a job engine. …Leadership starts from the top.”

That hope for the state’s colleges to become a “job engine” Malloy said will mean better aligning college degrees with employers demands.

“The thing I heard most frequently from prospective employers in the state is that they’re having a hard time finding the right skillset,” he said. “We are refocusing ourselves.”

Kennedy, who stepped down in June as the president of the University of Maine, took heat for sacrificing some traditional liberal arts programs, such as foreign language.

“Thus outgoing President Kennedy may add to his ‘accomplishments’ that he has brought Maine the ‘distinction’ of now being the only flagship of a state university system in the whole country without a Latin or classics major,” wrote Jay Bregman, a history professor, in an opinion piece the Bangor Daily News.

But Kennedy said Monday he is a strong advocate of liberal arts programs.

“Certainly bringing the university closer to the people in the state and the needs in the future and providing opportunities” is a goal, he said.

In Maine, some critics likened an emphasis on relevance to the job market as nudging universities toward the approach of trade schools. He was asked Monday what is the right balance for the state university system?

“The right answer is a balance that serves in a public institution the needs of the state, and different people differ on their defintion of what that correct balance is,” Kennedy said.

But he added that in Maine, the balance he struck was applauded by the governor and legislature.

Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, has questioned for years whether the state should play a more active role when students are considering what to major in by creating a master plan for higher education. A study completed by legislative staff in 2009 found that many colleges are not aligning their programs with the jobs that are actually needed.

Kennedy said he intends to meet with employers to close that gap.

“I need to know what the needs are, the workforce trends, the opportunities. … to make sure that the educational system is in place, and to in a sense anticipate what the needs will be over the next decade or so,” he said.

While he has never lived in Connecticut, he is no stranger to area. He said he has vacationed here numerous times, and his son graduated from the University of Connecticut.

Kennedy’s salary will be $340,000 a year and a $25,000 per year bonus based on performance established by the new 15-member board. His contract also provides for an employer-provided vehicle and $20,000 a year of deferred compensation for each full year of sevice and an annual $25,000 expense account.

After stepping down in June after six years as president at UMaine, Kennedy told the Bangor Daily News he was not ready to retire.

Over the next few years, the paper reported, he might expand his work in “developing ways the private sector and public universities can work together for economic development.”

Kennedy was to return to UMaine after a fall sabbatical to begin work on a new systemwide curriculum on alternative education, incorporating offerings at a UMaine satellite campus, a community college, and the law school.

“There is no reason that work being done at one institution should be replicated by another. We’ve been doing that far too long. With today’s technology, we can partner across state resources to build a strong curriculum,” he told the Bangor paper.

Kennedy has held positions at the University of Iowa, Washington State University, Ohio State University, the University of Maryland and Texas A & M University.He was a vice president and associate provost at Texas A & M prior to going to Maine in 2000 as vice president and provost.

His background should help him establish a good working relationship with Susan Herbst, the new president of the University of Connecticut, which was not part of the higher-education merger.

“I look forward to working with President Herbst,” he said.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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