Reorganizing the state universities and community colleges may have been Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s idea, but handpicking who would lead the merged, 100,000-student system wasn’t his call — at least not according to the legislators who crafted the merger bill.
That didn’t stop the governor, whose selection of Robert Kennedy in the summer of 2011 was the first in a series of aggressive moves that would spark questions this fall over who truly ran the new system.
The governor also created a high-salary, top-tier position not included in the statute and crafted a five-year deal with Kennedy even before the new Board of Regents for Higher Education was fully assembled.
Those actions ultimately would test more than the spirit of the law, complicating Malloy’s efforts to distance himself this fall as new controversies embarrassed the system and cost his top appointees their jobs.
And while the administration insists Malloy’s actions were handled properly during a very confusing time of transition, they also have sparked a bipartisan call to consider reducing the governor’s control going forward.
“Everything was just so rushed, and it feels like the proper steps were not taken on multiple occasions,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee and one of the biggest supporters of the reorganization.
Malloy makes his selections
Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislative majority agreed in the spring of 2011 to merge the administration of the four state universities (excluding the University of Connecticut), the 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College.
Malloy turned to Michael Meotti, who had been higher education commissioner to serve as interim president, appointing him July 1.
Just seven weeks later, Malloy replaced Meotti with Kennedy, a former president of the University of Maine.
The governor’s message at the time ran on two tracks: Kennedy was named “interim president,” per the statute, but he also was the individual Malloy expected to lead the regents’ system into the future.
“I hope [Kennedy] will be the first permanent, or long-term leader, of this system,” Malloy said.
Kennedy had been a finalist for the University of Connecticut presidency that went to Susan Herbst in December 2010. Malloy had been impressed with Kennedy during the UConn search, said Tim Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff at that time.
“I was pursuing a candidate for this position. I got that candidate for the position,” Malloy told Capitol reporters when he announced Kennedy in August 2011.
But it was clear that there was little that was interim about Kennedy’s “interim contract,” which included phrases such as “not to exceed five years,” although either party could terminate it earlier with 120 days’ notice.
It was signed by Kennedy on Sept. 14, 2011.
At the time, Lewis A. Robinson Jr. had been appointed chairman of the Board of Regents, but the board had not yet had its first meeting. And, according to statute, the board could not recommend a permanent president for another four months.
“It was an interim contract, but it was put together as a contract that should continue,” said Bannon, who negotiated the agreement for the governor’s office. “We were never going to get a candidate of Dr. Kennedy’s caliber with a contract that could be rewritten six weeks in.”
Mark Ojakian, who succeeded Bannon as chief of staff and who was the governor’s deputy budget director when the merger began, said the administration didn’t usurp the regents’ role.
“I think what the governor was trying to convey is: ‘I’m putting him in on an interim basis, but I think the Board of Regents should take a real serious look at him because I think he would make an outstanding candidate for the job,’” Ojakian said. “‘But I never said this is my guy, I’m appointing him, you (regents) just are a rubber stamp.’”
Governing Board or Rubber Stamp?
On Oct. 4, 2011, after nine of the 15 regents had been appointed, six would hold their first meeting, and take their first action regarding Kennedy.
According to the minutes of the meeting, board members, at Robinson’s request, voted at the last minute to add Kennedy’s contract to the agenda. The six regents then voted to authorize Robinson to sign the deal.
Robinson — the first representative of the state of Connecticut to sign the contract — would affix his signature on Oct. 4, four weeks after Kennedy had begun working.
Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the Higher Education Committee’s other co-chairwoman, had attended the news conference when Kennedy was announced, and didn’t speak up that day.
But she said during a recent interview the governor’s message was clear — that Kennedy wasn’t merely an option for the regents to consider.
“‘This is my choice and you will approve this,’” she said. “That was the message sent to everybody.”
Willis and other Higher Education Committee leaders said the first actions of the new regents’ board looked more like a rubber stamp than a carefully analyzed executive appointment.
They also said during interviews they have no reason to believe the regents did their own search, as legislators had intended.
“Everything was iron-clad and taken care of before the regents were even in place,” said Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, the ranking Republican senator on the committee. “It seemed so rushed instead of allowing a proper transition… It’s really unfair to the new Board of Regents who haven’t had the opportunity to carry out their duties. Everything happened really before they were really constituted.”
Rep. Timothy LeGeyt of Canton, ranking House Republican on the committee, called the series of events “disturbing.”
“We absolutely did not expect the governor to make these decisions and then let the Board of Regents ratify them,” he said.
Robinson declined to be interviewed by The Mirror for this story.
In a written statement, Robinson indicated, “As with any new initiative of this magnitude, mistakes may occur which necessitate a swift and thorough review. In the present case, we have committed to examining what went wrong, fixing it, and moving forward.”
Who appointed Michael Meotti?
The selection of Meotti raised similar questions about who was in charge, lawmakers said.
On the same day in August that Malloy revealed his selection of Kennedy, he also announced that Meotti, who had been interim president for seven weeks and the commissioner for the former Department of Higher Education before that, would “transition to become executive vice president and report directly to Dr. Kennedy.”
The governor added, “I look forward to his continued role… (Meotti) has been a rock on which much of this education endeavor has been based.”
The regents had never met at this point and Kennedy wouldn’t start on the job until Sept. 7. So who decided Meotti would play the second-most-important administrative role in the new system?
“We never had the conversation about who would create positions at what point in time,” said Ojakian, who negotiated the merger bill on behalf of the administration during the 2011 legislative session.
“Mike had been the commissioner of Higher Education and it was a natural crossover for him to have a senior role in that organization,” Ojakian added. “So, in that period of time there was a lot of uncertainty as to, quite honestly, who was responsible for doing what.”
Responding to The Mirror’s request for documents, the regents’ system released a letter, undated and signed by Kennedy, appointing Meotti as executive vice president effective Sept. 7.
But LeGeyt said this appeared to be another example of officials in the regents’ system confirming a decision already made by the governor.
The statute gives the president authority to hire staff to carry out the directions he received from the board — something that he couldn’t have received from a board that had never met when Meotti got his job.
Pay raises and contract perks
Meotti, who earned $183,339 as executive vice president, was at the center of controversy last month when The Mirror disclosed his pay had risen by nearly $50,000. That was one of more than 20 raises, worth nearly $300,000, that Kennedy had approved over the last year — without board approval in most cases.
The raises drew bipartisan legislative criticism, coming while most state employees are in the second-year of a two-year wage freeze, and after increases in college tuition and fees and cuts to student aid.
Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba pointed out last week that the regents’ system saved $5.5 million this year by eliminating 24 positions and ordering other efficiencies.
But Bye argued repeatedly that finding those savings didn’t justify large pay increases for administrators while most students and state employees were sacrificing.
“State government doesn’t work on commission,” she said.
Some lawmakers raised a similar objection when they learned of some of the perks that accompanied the $340,000 annual base salary Kennedy received.
As the embattled president apologized for the raises, the Mirror disclosed that his contract included not only $25,000 per year to cover fundraising and outreach expenses but it also allowed him to spend six weeks a year on professional development. Kennedy used the latter to work much of the last summer from his home in Minnesota.
He took no courses nor did any academic research or writing. His daily calendar during that time working remotely had few appointments. He also used two weeks of his vacation time over the summer, he said.
He said his time in Minnesota, where he and his wife have a home, would be more accurately described as working remotely, not doing professional development.
As news of the raises broke, Malloy made it clear that the regents’ system had to be held accountable.
“The Board of Regents is an independent body, and as such it was their decision to handle the compensation of management in this manner,” Doba said when Meotti’s raise first came to light.
“They screwed up,” the governor said of the public college system’s administration.
But by the time legislators were questioning aspects of Kennedy’s compensation deemed too lavish, events got more confusing.
When The Mirror first inquired about Kennedy’s compensation, Malloy’s office indicated that it had negotiated the “interim contract” and that Robinson had signed it.
But the regents’ chairman told reporters in October, “This contract is something that was agreed with President Kennedy and the governor of our state.”
Robinson also recently acknowledged he didn’t know what rationale was used to determine Kennedy’s compensation. “I really don’t have knowledge of what process was followed,” he told reporters after an Oct. 25, 2012, Board of Regents meeting. “Hindsight is 20-20. If we had to do it again, there would probably be more discussion.”
The chairman also had expressed surprise when he learned Kennedy spent the summer working from Minnesota.
“When I was presented with the contract, and read the paragraph, that I assumed, as I believe someone else here said, that it would be off-site seminars, perhaps teaching or writing a book or something like that,” he said.
Both Ojakian and Bannon said Kennedy’s compensation was based on an analysis of pay offered to comparable higher education administrators in other state systems of similar size.
“If you take a look at those benefits in the context of what other system presidents in the state of Connecticut and in the country get, you would see that this falls I think, a little bit below the middle,” Ojakian said.
Still, leaders of the Higher Education Committee said some of the perks in Kennedy’s contract were as insensitive to sacrifices others have made as the raises were — and shouldn’t be in the contract given to the next system president.
“I would hope they are not or else they are tone deaf,” Willis said.
Reducing the governor’s role
Committee leaders expect legislation to be raised next spring to reduce the governor’s control over the system — possibly clarifying the board’s authority and even reducing the number of regents the governor can appoint.
“I would be surprised if there isn’t” such legislation introduced, Willis said.
“It doesn’t seem balanced,” Boucher said of the current statute that allows the governor to name 9 of the 15 regents. “That independence of a board is important. You really need that.”
Bye also said the board’s composition should be reconsidered.
“Maybe the governor, at best, should have equal representation,” Bye said. “It is not a balance of power if one branch has a majority of power.”
Ojakian said the administration would resist any major changes to the current system.
“If you look at higher education systems around the country, most boards have the majority of their boards appointed by the governor of that state,” he said. “That’s the normal way that things are done.”
Ojakian added, “the reforms that have been implemented are good reforms. … I think there are some lessons to be learned from some of the mistakes that were made by individuals (in the regents system), but that the system as it was constructed in the legislature should be allowed to continue to function.”
One day earlier, Malloy asked former University of Connecticut President Philip Austin to fill Kennedy’s post on an interim basis, making him the third interim president in 13 months. The regents endorsed that move and began a nationwide search for a long-term successor.
“More long term, we look forward to continuing our critical work with those in the state who believe, as we do, that more needs to be done to establish our higher education system as one of the finest in the country and to connect our students with Connecticut’s workforce development efforts to prepare them for future success on whatever path they choose,” Robinson said.