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Legislative leaders Thursday blasted hefty pay increases University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst awarded to four senior staff members as the state and public university grapple with big budget cuts.

“UConn’s administration continues to be tone deaf to the economic realities facing our state. Handing out exorbitant raises to their highest-paid staffers while at the same time increasing tuition on hard-working families is the height of arrogance,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said in a statement sent to reporters Thursday afternoon. “As state employee layoffs approach the 1,000 mark, and virtually every state agency is dealing with severe budget cuts, the leadership in Storrs has shown once again they just don’t get it.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, in a statement shortly afterward, called on UConn to rescind the raises.

“Really?! You’ve got to be kidding me. One might have thought that the examples of the disastrous mistakes of Chancellor Gray and President Hogan would have left a more lasting impact on decisions regarding raises for administrators in higher education. At a time when painful reductions are being imposed throughout state government, UConn should not see itself as an isolated and privileged exception. I urge President Herbst to reconsider and rescind these untimely raises,” said Looney.

The Connecticut Mirror reported Wednesday that Herbst was sticking to promises she made in 2013 and 2014 to award multiple-year, double-digit percentage pay increases to the university’s general counsel, chief architect and Herbst’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff.

All received pay increases in the 2015-16 fiscal year even though few other non-union managers did – at UConn or elsewhere in state government.

The school’s top lawyer received a $55,000 increase over two fiscal years, her chief of staff received a $50,000 increase over three fiscal years and her chief architect received a $45,000 increase over two fiscal years. The general counsel and chief of staff also received bonuses of $25,000 to $30,000 each year.

One more $13,000 increase is scheduled for the chief architect on Jan, 1, and a spokesman for the university said Thursday it would not be canceled.

University officials defended the increases and bonuses, saying they were necessary to retain and reward important staff members and their pay was benchmarked against that at similar institutions. Herbst notified the staff members of the increases in letters that UConn said amounted to contractual commitments.

“Pay for these employees was set in 2013 and 2014. They are responsible for helping to run a $2.3 billion enterprise with 30,000 students, 9,000 employees, seven campuses and a hospital,” said UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz. “Just as our first-rate coaches are rightly paid according to national benchmarks, so are our academic, medical and administrative leaders.  This small number of leadership salaries have no meaningful impact on UConn’s overall budget, workforce, or tuition rates.”

But House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, dismissed the argument that national benchmarks justified the increases.

“At a time when hundreds of people are losing their jobs in the executive and judicial branches and budget cuts systemwide are severely hurting government services for the needy, to give well-paid senior staff members at UConn big raises defies logic,” Klarides said in a statement. “I cannot understand the reasoning behind this.”

“I don’t know what the . . . national benchmarking data shows, nor do I care. Ask a laid off state worker if he or she cares,” Klarides said.

The governor’s office took a less critical approach.

“Just like any agency in state government, UConn must adapt to a new economic reality and accomplish more with less. They are already working to do just that, making the difficult decisions to live within their budget,” said Meg Green, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat. “That being said, to remain one of our state’s primary economic drivers and educational centers, they must do what it takes to attract the best and the brightest to their university. We are confident that UConn is doing their best to live within their means while working to accomplish their mission.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, called the increases “extremely troubling.”

“It shows that the administration is not properly monitoring what is going on behind the scenes at our state university,” he wrote in a statement to reporters. “It’s understandable that UConn faces challenges in their budget, but the tone-deaf decision to hand out these large raises shows that the university is in desperate need of additional oversight. Allowing massive bonuses to be handed out to a few, at a time when merit-based increases have been canceled for all state non-union managers, is a failure by the Democrat administration to uphold its policies equally across the board.

“At a time when students are being asked to shoulder increased burdens with tuition hikes – and at a time when UConn’s own president has voiced concerns about the effects of budget constraints on faculty hiring, growing class size, and weaker student retention – it’s disturbing to say the least that the administration would allow such a blatant disregard for statewide cost-saving measures to occur,” Fasano 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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