Leadership & Governance

Connecticut's Higher-Education Chief Resigns Amid Controversy Over Pay Raises

Connecticut Board of Regents

Robert A. Kennedy said in a written statement that he had resigned "with a heavy heart" but was optimistic that eventually the Board of Regents would be able to "move a change agenda."
October 11, 2012

[Update (10/12/2012, 6:49 p.m.): This article has been rewritten to reflect the resignations of Mr. Kennedy, announced on Friday morning, and Mr. Meotti, announced later on Friday.]

Robert A. Kennedy, whose support base as president of the Connecticut state higher-education system quickly eroded this week, resigned from his post on Friday.

For the past week, Mr. Kennedy has been in damage-control mode, trying to explain a series of secret raises for staff members and rebuffing allegations that his office was laying the groundwork to force out a dozen community-college presidents. On Friday, Mr. Kennedy said the controversies had become a "distraction."

"After taking some time to think about what is in the best interest of our state and this new organization, our colleges and universities, the faculty, staff, presidents, and, of course, our students, I have decided to submit my resignation to Board Chairman Lewis J. Robinson this morning," Mr. Kennedy said in a written statement.

"I do so with a heavy heart, understanding that this isn't the way in which I thought my tenure would end in Connecticut, but also with a great deal of optimism that, ultimately, the Board of Regents for Higher Education will succeed greatly in its efforts to move a change agenda focused on preparing students for the global economy in which they will compete, and becoming a critical partner in the state's workforce-development efforts."

Loss of Allies

Mr. Kennedy's announcement came one day after two of his key allies appeared to distance themselves from him. On Thursday the state’s governor and Mr. Robinson, chair of the Board of Regents, both issued statements critical of Mr. Kennedy's performance.

"Serious problems have been identified in recent days, and they need to be fixed," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democratic, said in a news release. "I believe the Board of Regents needs to step in, conduct a review of these matters, and take appropriate steps based on their findings. The credibility of the central office has been damaged, and it needs to be fixed."

The statement called into question Mr. Malloy's confidence in his own appointee, Mr. Kennedy, who took the helm of the newly merged higher-education system in 2011. The system's Board of Regents oversees the state's universities and community colleges outside of the University of Connecticut system.

Mr. Kennedy, a former president of the University of Maine at Orono, declined an interview request on Thursday.

Awarding raises in a down economy would be a politically dicey prospect for any system president, but Mr. Kennedy had drawn particular criticism for approving the increases without the board’s knowledge or consent. In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Robinson, the board's chairman, said he was "greatly troubled" by Mr. Kennedy’s actions.

In a subsequent statement on Friday, Mr. Robinson gave Mr. Kennedy faint praise and wished him well. Mr. Robinson also stressed the need to set new compensation policies to "ensure something like this doesn’t happen again."

The board has formed a committee to review whether the raises were justified. At a special meeting on Friday, the board nominated Philip E. Austin, a former president of the University of Connecticut, to replace Mr. Kennedy on an interim basis. According to the Associated Press, Mr. Austin is not interested in the permanent job.

String of Controversies

The statements by the governor and the board chairman came a day after Mr. Kennedy suspended all raises, which totaled more than $260,000 for 22 staff members, according to system officials. Many of the raises were awarded in June, and it would be up to the Board of Regents to determine whether any money should be returned.

Michael P. Meotti, the system's executive vice president and former state commissioner of education, has already said he would give back his raise and return to a $184,424 annual salary. His $47,820 pay increase was the largest of all the raises. Late Friday, Mr. Meotti also resigned.

Outrage over the unauthorized raises was just the latest batch of bad news for Mr. Kennedy. Two of the state's 12 community-college presidents have said in recent days that they were pressed to take buyouts or face dismissal. System officials have denied the presidents’ assertions, saying they had merely been offered amicable departures if they did not support a new higher-education law that limited remedial education in the state.

"It is not true that those presidents who choose not to stay will automatically be terminated," Mr. Robinson said in a news release on Tuesday. "Presidents who do not choose to depart will be subject to a performance-review process which has traditionally taken place in June."

Amid all the turmoil, Mr. Kennedy also revealed this week that he spent much of his summer working remotely at a vacation home in Minnesota, rather than at the central office in Connecticut. He said his contract, which paid him $340,000 in base salary, allows for six weeks a year of "professional development."