In 2012 the General Assembly reinforced the authority of the Board of Regents for Higher Education for appointing the leadership of the state’s largest public higher education enterprise, the Connecticut State University and College System.
This action was intended to avoid political influence in the appointing process that had resulted in the forced resignations of two previous gubernatorial appointees. (The governor still appoints nine of the 15 members of the Board of Regents who govern and guide the colleges and universities. The governor also still appoints the chair of the Board of Regents and can change that appointment at will as seen as recently as last summer in his controversial removal of the previous chairman.)
A major responsibility of the Board of Regents is the selection of presidents for the institutions that comprise the 17-college system.
The job requirements for these educational leaders are both demanding and strategic. Presidential candidates must bring extensive and respected credentials in institutional leadership and academic leadership, along with expertise in the finances and administration of academic institutions. They must be able to demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to the missions of the institutions they intend to lead.
The tenure of college and university presidents averages around five years nationally at both two-year and four-year institutions; it’s not as easy as it looks. However, many people, without experience or expertise and little understanding of higher education, aspire to these attractive positions.
To conduct a successful search and eliminate unqualified candidates, search committees establish criteria that applicants must meet in order to be selected. Professional firms that conduct searches make a considerable amount of money to find and match viable candidates with these criteria for educational leadership. The three searches under way at colleges in Connecticut are costing the Board of Regents over $60,000 each.
If the cost results in finding highly qualified candidates, the money will be well spent. Even without the governor’s interference, which is now contrary to statute, and the ongoing reminders of the failures of previous political appointees, politics appears to be an important factor in the candidacy of Sen. President Pro Tem Donald Williams for the presidential position at Quinebaug Valley Community College as reported in the Connecticut Mirror of April 11, 2014.
Sen. Williams has none of the qualifications in academic, institutional or administrative leadership required by the position description. And according to the State Constitution, Article Third, sections 10 and 11, he cannot accept an appointed position in another branch of state government while in office as a state senator.
A selection now to take effect in January would be the equivalent of a nomination that is prohibited. His term of office according to the constitution runs from January to January until a new senator is voted and sworn in to the 2015 session. (Interestingly a member of the search committee is a state representative from the Quinebaug Valley district who will be a candidate for his Senate seat.)
While Sen. Williams announced his retirement earlier this year, he continues to serve until his replacement is sworn in. Sec. 2-5 of the Connecticut General Statutes implements this constitutional limitation: “Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 2-5 Holding of office by members of the General Assembly. No member of the General Assembly shall, during the term for which he is elected, be nominated or appointed by the Governor, the General Assembly or any other appointing authority of this state or serve or be elected to any position in the Judicial, Legislative or Executive Department of the state government including any commission established by any special or public act of the General Assembly.”
The statutes that established the Board of Regents, that reinforce their appointing authority over the institutions they guide, along with the vigilance of legislative oversight committees, have kept Connecticut public higher education largely exempt from the instability and influence of politics.
The strategic planning process for higher education currently under way in the General Assembly calls for the creation of a world class system of public higher education to support the economy and culture of Connecticut. This will take world class leadership throughout the university and college system, especially at the institutional level where learning and student achievement take place. A presidential position at a community college should not be a fallback sinecure for a politician looking to retire and reinvent himself.
The Community College Board of Trustees was always successful in avoiding this danger. We urge the Board of Regents to ensure open, equitable, and honest searches to find the best, most qualified candidates for the positions to lead the system for which they are responsible.
The Rev. David L. Cannon, of Preston, is a former community college trustee and chair. Jules Lang, of Norwalk, is a former community college trustee.