Politics, personalities and the tumultuous departure of former UConn president Tom Katsouleas
If you listen to the University of Connecticut’s board of trustees meetings, you could get the sense that its members and college officials never disagree. University staff present issues trustees must consider, and the board spends little or no time discussing them before unanimously approving them.
In June, after listening to staff present proposals to raise student fees and spend $3 billion to run the university and its hospital, the package was unanimously approved without any discussion or questions. During that same meeting, the board also approved the controversial purchase of land that was slated to become off-campus housing for $4.2 million without any discussion.
These meetings at the state’s flagship public university are pre-orchestrated to follow a decorum that has been institutionalized over the years, and any disagreement is expected to be sorted out ahead of the public show, sources say.
“That’s a UConn specialty. That’s just how UConn does everything,” said state Sen. Mae Flexer, a Democrat whose district includes UConn’s main campus in Storrs. “Everything is lined up with the members ahead of time before the truly public meeting; it’s how they make many decisions, especially those that might be controversial.”
The leader of the union that represents UConn’s professors, Michael Bailey, has noticed.
“That’s the way that the board of trustees has operated. There seems to be a lot of discussion in executive sessions and closed doors, and then they come forward, and it seems like it’s pretty formatted, any discussion is formatted,” said Bailey.
To accomplish this synergy at public meetings, university presidents have historically lobbied the 21 trustees before to get consensus. It’s a time-consuming approach that UConn’s last president, Thomas Katsouleas, never quite embraced. He opted instead to keep the chairman of his board and relevant committees updated.
For example, he emailed his full board to give the members the heads-up just one week before he planned to announce during his inauguration ceremony that starting next school year the public university would offer free college to everyone who comes from a household with an income less than $50,000.
“I will be making in that speech an aggressive affordability initiative,” he wrote them during the fall of 2019. “I look forward to a fuller presentation and discussion at our next board meeting.”
Flexer attended the speech.
“It was very exciting, and everyone in the room leapt to their feet in applause and a standing ovation,” Flexer said. “And as someone who went to the University of Connecticut and came from a family that made less than $50,000 a year, I thought it was an absolutely incredible thing.”
But Katsouleas’ approach led to a rift with some members of his board who worried about how to pay for it and potentially letting the initiative collapse after it was so publicly celebrated. Board Chairman Dan Toscano said Katsouleas also put trustees in a difficult spot regarding how to pay for his plans to significantly scale back previously adopted tuition increases.
“I think that got a little bit ahead of the discussions with the board and understanding — fully understanding — the financial implications,” Toscano said during an interview.
The weekend before the board was set to consider tuition, the president submitted his resignation letter, just two years into his five-year appointment. School officials, however, would wait two weeks after the spring semester ended, when most students were gone on summer break, to make the surprise announcement of his departure as president.
Legislative leaders weigh in
The Senate chairman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, Derek Slap, said he believes Katsouleas’ issues were bigger than his plans for scholarships and tuition. Slap used to work at the UConn Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm for scholarships and other initiatives.
“It seemed to me like it was about politics, about personalities, about communication, about all those things more than this shortfall for that program. I didn’t think it was primarily about tuition,” said Slap, a West Hartford Democrat. “I think when you read the level of involvement at the board — and specifically the board chair had with things like masks at graduation — to me, I thought that showed that the president had lost the confidence of the board.”
Flexer said the board had two options when it came to Katsouleas: Rally around his bold initiatives to reduce costs for students attending UConn, or resist because he didn’t follow the expected decorum.
“I think the people on the board truly believe they have the best interests of students in mind. But like anybody, there can become a culture where the culture of the body, and how those in charge believe it should function, becomes more important than actually having students in mind. And it seems to me that may be what’s seeping in here,” said Flexer. “There should have been a full university commitment to make this happen. It was [only] a $1 million program.”
She also doesn’t understand why UConn officials never asked the legislature for help when fundraising for the scholarships fell short by $400,000. She is the co-chair of the legislature’s budget-writing subcommittee that oversees higher education.
“If the board of trustees — in working with the foundation and President Katsouleas — knew they weren’t going to meet that benchmark, then they should have come to the state legislature. I don’t remember the university coming to myself and saying, ‘We need more money so we can make sure we can fulfill this promise to these students.’”
Instead, the initiative was shut down after one year. The first cohort of students accepted with this scholarship, however, will continue to attend UConn tuition-free.
During a recent interview, Katsouleas declined to assess what led to his resignation.
“I’m just looking forward. I’m proud of what we accomplished together, and I think the successes we had were a result of a number of people, including advice from the board chair, and indirectly then, from the board as a whole.”
A physicist and engineering professor years ago, he is excited to dive back in to researching advanced accelerators. He will begin next spring teaching college students at UConn’s Storrs campus.
“It’s an exciting time in my field. There have been some new developments since I left the field that open up some new possibilities,” he said.
He’s also considering teaching in other areas where he has experience.
“I think the provost is going to give me the opportunity to explore teaching more broadly and reach a broader swath of students. I will possibly teach some courses in crisis leadership in the school policy or in education and in physics and in electrical engineering. So it’ll be fun.”
He’s not sure how long he will stay at UConn, however. His partner is the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for three more years.
“I’ve committed to stay in the area until she finishes her term. And after that, we’ll reassess.” he said.
The conditions of his transition to faculty aren’t without consternation, however. That’s because his contract as UConn’s president included a provision that if he resigned “without cause,” he would “be entitled to the post-presidency benefits.” Those benefits include “a rate of pay equal to the highest base rate payable to a 9-month faculty member.”
This year, he will be paid $337,000. His predecessor, Susan Herbst, also had the provision in her contract and is also making $337,000 a year as faculty member teaching at the Stamford campus.
This provision has drawn the ire of some legislators, including Slap.
“The escalator clause in the contract is ridiculous, right, always the highest paid,” he said. “I don’t want to see us have to write legislation to say what the university can offer in salary packages and what it can’t. That’s fraught with complications. However, people get very frustrated — I do, and I think my colleagues do, when they see things like this.”
Toscano, the board chairman, said that provision will not likely be in the next president’s contract. He was not a member of the board when Katsouleas’ contract was considered.
“I think that there are parts of it that make sense [and] parts that don’t,“ he said. “I would not necessarily expect that same type of language to be in a contract for the next president of UConn.”
It may not be an issue the board has to consider anytime soon, however.
That’s because the board tapped Dr. Andrew Agwunobi to become interim president of the university. He has been leading UConn Health, which includes the hospital, dental and medical schools, and medical research facilities for almost six years. In doing so his salary jumped from $707,000 to $813,000.
Toscano said the board is content with him leading the school for a while.
“He’s a phenomenal leader, and we need some stability here. And he certainly — from my vantage point anyway — is a lock of stability for UConn. He’s been around UConn, he knows the place very well, and so that puts us in a position to take our time.”
Agwunobi is already getting settled into the job. Last week, he was driving around campus in a golf cart, talking with students and parents as they moved in. Agwunobi is the first person of color to lead UConn in the university’s 140-year history. A pediatrician by training who went on to get a master’s in business administration and ran hospitals, he also doesn’t come from academia. That background initially raised concern among some faculty.
“You can imagine, the concern with faculty that have been working here for 25, 30 years with the first time that they’re seeing a non-academic in the president’s position,” he said. “But I have all the faith in the world with Carl Lejuez as provost, and his leadership in the academic realm, and his advice to the president on academic issues.”
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