Ben Barnes named CFO of higher-education system

alvin chang / Ctmirror.org

Ben Barnes, left, and Mark Ojakian, answering questions three years ago.

Ben Barnes, who has overseen Connecticut’s state finances for eight years as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s only secretary of policy and management, was named Monday as the chief financial officer for the state’s sprawling system of community colleges and regional state universities.

The appointment of Barnes gives the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities an expert in public finance at a pivotal juncture, while inviting inevitable questions of favoritism. CSCU President Mark E. Ojakian was Barnes’ deputy for a year at the Office of Policy and Management and then his boss for three as Malloy’s chief of staff.

Barnes, 50, who had jobs in municipal finance and administration for Stamford, Bridgeport and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities before becoming the OPM secretary, succeeds Erika Steiner, who is retiring at week’s end. Barnes will begin the job on Jan. 4, a week before Malloy leaves office.

“What I think is important to understand is there was a very thorough and independent and transparent search process that began in July,” said Ojakian, who was hired as president by the Board of Regents for Higher Education in September 2015. “I’m very comfortable with the process we went through.”

Ojakian acknowledged there was no need for a similar explanation of the search process five years ago when Steiner was hired after a career in private industry, most recently as chief financial officer and treasurer of Lydall, a manufacturer in Manchester.

“I think there will be a lot of interest this time. There’s already been interest in terms of the story back in September when he was in the building and was a semi-finalists for job,” Ojakian said. “So, we want to be able to frame the conversation to talk about why this is the right choice, why he will make that positive difference in our system and why there may be some political noise over this. I get it.”

CT Mirror reported in September that Barnes was one of four semi-finalists to be interviewed by a search committee, senior staff and leaders of the Board of Regents. The search committee was led by Dimitrios Pachis, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Eastern Connecticut State University, and included Scott Jordan, the CFO of UConn.

The CSCU system covers all of public higher-education outside of the University of Connecticut. The system includes 12 community colleges, an online university, and the four regional state universities: Eastern, Central, Southern and Western. It has a combined budget of $1.3 billion and a student population of 82,000.

The system faces the twin pressures of dwindling state financial support and a shrinking college-age population that has contributed to enrollment drops over the last five years of eight percent at the regional universities and three percent at the community colleges.

But industry groups and Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, a Greenwich businessman who has taught classes at the Central Connecticut State University, have said the community college system is vital to meeting work-force requirements.

Currently, about 36,600 public school students graduate from high school each year. In 10 years, 4,700 fewer students will be heading off to college or a career each year – a 13 percent decline. Connecticut is expected to have the nation’s second-largest proportional decline in public school students in the nation, the U.S. Department of Education recently reported.

Ojakian said Barnes is best-equipped to serve the system through a period of transition and retrenchment.

“He understands state finances. He understands higher education. I think he will be creative in offering solutions to myself and the board as we face increasingly difficult financial times in the future,” Ojakian said.

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The offices at the Board of Regents

The search committee recommended three finalists to Ojakian, one of whom dropped out. Ojakian made the hire in consultation with the board. He did not consult with the incoming Lamont administration.

“His talent was unmatched. His overall knowledge of the system and vision for the system is extraordinary,” said Pachis, who led the six-person search committee. “He knows what the role of the CSU system is all about.”

As the chief financial officer, Barnes will oversee a system of once-autonomous institutions that still lacks a central financial reporting system. But he no longer will have one of his responsibilities as OPM secretary — negotiating a budget with the General Assembly.

During his tenure, the state faced a chronic fiscal challenges, beginning when Malloy took office in January 2011 and faced an inherited shortfall of nearly $3.7 billion and no budget reserves. The new governor faces a projected shortfall of $1.7 billion, but reserves of $2 billion.

“I wish we could have done more, but we did a lot,” Barnes said.

Barnes, who made $209,439 as OPM secretary, will be paid $213,600 as chief financial officer and serves at the pleasure of the system’s president. Steiner was paid $204,400.

With more than five years of state service, Barnes already is vested in the state pension system. He is eligible to retire at age 63. State employees get lifetime health benefits after 10 years of service, but they cannot be used until the employee’s age and years of service add to 75.

As the father of 6-year-old twins, Barnes said he is an unlikely candidate for an early retirement. He also has children ages 18, 22 and 25 from a previous marriage.

The 17 colleges and universities in the Board of Regents system currently gets about 60 percent of its funding from the state budget. State funding has been scaled back by $66 million over the last five years, a 19 percent cut. This has caused regular tuition increases. After several years of pay freezes and other concessions, unionized employees in the Regents system are slated for two years annual 5.5 percent increases.

Efforts to shed administrative costs through a system-wide reorganization were rejected by an accrediting agency earlier this year, limiting the immediate limited options to scale back spending on non-instructional positions.

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