Pressures mounted Thursday for the chief of the state’s merged public college system to resign as leaders of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee issued a bipartisan call for the embattled administrator to step down.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwomen of the committee, and the two ranking Republicans, Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton and Rep. Timothy LeGeyt of Canton, said that as leaders with jurisdiction over higher education-related measures, they had lost confidence in Robert Kennedy, president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education.
“We don’t see how, with the damage that’s been done in this case, that that reform agenda can be carried through,” Bye said. She was referring to legislative and executive branch efforts over the past year to consolidate the community colleges, Connecticut State University and Charter Oak State College without harming academic programs.
The committee leaders made their announcement following a closed-door meeting Thursday at the state Capitol complex with the chairman of the Board of Regents, Lewis Robinson Jr.
Robinson was not immediately available to comment.
Kennedy has come under fire over the past week both for disclosures that he mistakenly authorized 21 executive pay raises without board approval, and also for spending six weeks working remotely this past summer from his home in Minnesota. His involvement in the 12 community college presidents being offered an “expedite[d]” dismissal from their posts was also questionable.
The lawmakers also called on those who received the raises to return any increase they have received to date. Those raises will total nearly $300,000 a year.
Gov. Dannel Malloy, who hand-picked Kennedy for the job, has been highly critical of the recent developments. He has not called on Kennedy to resign.
Kennedy was not available to comment Thursday afternoon.
If Kennedy does decide he will not offer his resignation, Higher Education Committee leaders said the appointed Board of Regents can vote to cancel their contract with him. If they do, he is required to get a 120-day notice, with pay, the leaders said.
The appointed Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Friday at 2:30 p.m. in Hartford. The agenda says that “No action will be taken at this meeting.”
Boucher said these raises should not have happened without board approval. “There seems to be a failure of communications between the president’s office and the Board of Regents… There is a statute and a law in place that clearly says this wage increase has to be brought before the board.”
“This seems like such a stupid mistake, an obvious mistake,” Bye added, “and from the public’s point of view, unforgivable.”
The top Republicans in the legislature, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk, and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, both said Thursday that Kennedy needs to go.
“Given the developments over the last two weeks, I believe it is in the best interests of the thousands of students that rely on our state’s higher education system, and those who are responsible to taxpayers for how it is administered, that President Kennedy tender his resignation,” Cafero said.
“I have never been one to jump to conclusions when it comes to allegations that affect someone’s livelihood,” Cafero added. “But I think we have ample evidence that warrants a change in the leadership of the state college system.”
McKinney also called for the resignation of Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti, the second-highest-ranking administrator in the regents’ system.
The Higher Education Committee leaders did not call for Meotti’s resignation, but said they have no immediate plans to make him the system’s next president if Kennedy does decide to resign.
Kennedy approved a nearly $50,000 raise for Meotti this past summer, taking Meotti’s annual salary from $183,339, to $232,244. On Tuesday, one day after The Mirror disclosed the raise, Meotti announced he would relinquish it. The other raises Kennedy approved have also been suspended.
“The Board of Regents of Higher Education needs to clean house,” McKinney said. “The actions of President Robert Kennedy and Executive Vice President Michael Meotti have embarrassed Connecticut’s higher education system and further eroded taxpayer confidence and trust in state institutions.”
“Both men need to resign and the search for competent successors must begin immediately,” McKinney added.
And though the Higher Education Committee leaders didn’t call for Meotti’s resignation Thursday, they also made it clear they are expecting a thorough review by the Board of Regents of the raises, and are reserving judgment about Meotti until they know more.
Willis said she specifically told Robinson “to look at Meotti and his role” in the raises.
“This didn’t just happen in a vacuum,” LeGeyt added.
Kennedy, whose base salary is $340,000, also faced several questions this week about his absence from the state and central office for six weeks this past summer, while he exercised contract rights to “professional development.”
But he took no courses or did any academic research or writing. He spent his time in Minnesota, where he and his wife have a home, and said it would be more accurate to described that time as working remotely, not doing professional development.
Cafero said the Board of Regents, and not just Kennedy, weakened their credibility by allowing this arrangement. “For six weeks, did anyone say: ‘Where’s Bob?’”
Malloy also issued a statement Thursday, saying the system’s credibility has been shaken.
“Serious problems have been identified in recent days, and they need to be fixed,” the governor said. “I believe the Board of Regents needs to step in, conduct a review of these matters, and take appropriate steps based on their findings. The credibility of the central office has been damaged, and it needs to be restored as quickly as possible.”
Though Robinson didn’t specifically say whether the Board of Regents was considering disciplining or dismissing Kennedy, he did note in a written statement before meeting with legislators that a new Special Committee on Administration formed this week “will be reviewing his judgment exercised in these matters, as well as his performance. Based on our findings, we will take the appropriate action.”
Robinson also said that “the board, and I, personally, have been greatly troubled with the actions that have been taken by and the lack of information shared with the Board of Regents by President Kennedy.”