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Psst ... You're Fired

April 30, 2010

If a public university president is forced out, does she make a sound? In most cases she does, but apparently not in some parts of Connecticut.

A recent change to the Connecticut State University System’s policies allowed a campus president’s ouster to go unnoticed for months. While Cheryl Norton announced her resignation as president of Southern Connecticut State University in February, the seeds of her departure were sown in November of last year. That’s when the system's chancellor, David G. Carter, employed new powers, allowing him to issue a “non-continuation” notice to Norton without a public vote of the full board.

For all intents and purposes, Norton was secretly fired, and the details of her ouster might never have come to public view if not for the Connecticut Mirror, a recently founded site that relied on public records to piece together a backstory that had not been divulged by any of the parties involved.

The documents shed light on a change of board policy approved in October -- about a month before Norton received her non-renewal notice -- that allowed Carter to quietly dismiss her. Under the new policy, a chancellor of the Connecticut State system can issue letters of non-continuation “without cause or explanation,” so long as he has the “concurrence” of the board’s chair. The board has its say only after the fact, when trustees have a narrow window of time to overturn the decision with a majority vote.

In the wake of Norton’s “resignation,” faculty and some lawmakers are questioning how a public university can oust a president without anyone ever even knowing.

“That surprised the hell out of me, too,” said State Rep. Peter Villano, a Democrat from the town of Hamden. “People looked at [the new policy], they raised their eyebrows I suppose, and then everybody forgot about it. Now we’re forced to take a second look, and we’re all surprised and saying, ‘Hold on, did this really happen? It happened on our watch. How did it come to pass?’ ”

Villano said he is so concerned about the lack of transparency in the process that he’s pushing leaders of the House Higher Education Committee to hold hearings on the issue.

“I would hope that we would get some legislation arising out of the hearings,” said Villano, who is not a member of the education committee. “The hearings will be held not just to get a clearer understanding of what happened and why it happened, but what the future course should be.”

Under the non-continuation notice, Norton would have been removed effective Dec. 1, 2010. She entered into a separation agreement, however, that placed her on a year’s paid leave June 1 at her annual $285,200 salary, the Mirror reported.

Board Never Voted on Overturning Chancellor

Chancellor Carter was not made available for an interview Thursday, but system officials provided a statement from Karl Krapek, the board’s chair. In a letter to the Southern Connecticut Faculty Senate, Krapek said the board’s role was unchanged by revisions to the non-continuation policy.

“The board of trustees remains the ultimate decision maker on non-continuation,” he wrote. “… [These revisions] were for the noble purpose of protecting the privacy of a president in such a situation and to serve the mutual best interest of both the individual employee (president) and the greater university as a whole. I disagree that the Board has ceded or relinquished any authority to the Chancellor or abrogated its role in any way…”

Timeline
Oct. 1, 2009: Connecticut State University trustees approve new policy, allowing chancellor to issue "non-continuation" notices to presidents without full board approval. The board chair must concur, however, and trustees can later overrule by majority vote.

Nov. 17, 2009: Chancellor David G. Carter notifies Cheryl Norton, Southern Connecticut State president, that her appointment will be “non-continued" effective Dec. 1, 2010.

Dec. 3, 2009: Executive Committee of Board of Trustees meets and is informed of a “recent personnel matter which might be brought before the full board absent a resolution.”

Dec. 9, 2009: Norton signs separation agreement.

Dec. 10, 2009: Board of Trustees meets. Agenda stated "Possible Management Personnel issue" could be discussed. The separation agreement, however, removes the issue from the agenda.

Dec. 11, 2009: Norton sends resignation letter to Carter.

Dec. 19, 2009: News report identifies Norton as a candidate for president at Youngstown State University. She does not get the job.

February 2010: Norton announces her resignation, citing “personal and professional reasons”

April 17, 2010: Connecticut Mirror provides first public account of story behind Norton's resignation.

SOURCES: Connecticut State University and Connecticut Mirror.

Krapek’s contention that the board still has the ultimate say on presidential firings presumably refers to a clause that allows trustees to overturn the chancellor’s decision at a later date. It’s notable, however, that events as they unfolded in Norton's case never allowed for that provision to be tested.
Norton’s separation agreement was signed Dec. 9 -- one day before the full board was set to have its first meeting in the wake of the non-continuation notice being issued. The Dec. 10 board meeting would have been the sole opportunity for the board to overturn the chancellor’s decision, and the point was moot by the time they met because of the separation agreement.

System officials would not say whether the generous provisions of Norton’s separation agreement would have been available had she not signed before the board met Dec. 10.

The faculty senates of three of the system’s four campuses, including Southern Connecticut, have issued resolutions objecting to or expressing concern about the changes to the non-continuation policy.

“Now two people in a back room, based on no knowledge that is public, can get rid of a president, and we saw this as very ill-advised and very dangerous,” said Brian Johnson, chair of the Southern Connecticut Senate and an English professor.

“It opens itself up to the kind of arrogance and unilateral decision making that we think is particularly damaging in a higher education environment,” he added. “Unlike the corporate world, we do believe in shared governance, and we don’t believe in top down, back room decision making.”

Eastern Connecticut’s Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution calling on the board to restore its former non-continuation policy, which unambiguously left the responsibility for non-continuation of a president with the board. Bill Salka, president of the Senate, said the campus was more concerned about a potentially chilling effect on presidents than about a chancellor actually being able to override the will of the board.

“The concerns in the Senate were more with the informal fear -- the threat of the non-renewal would be enough to perhaps intimidate a president,” said Salka, an associate professor of political science. “But I think if a future chancellor were to abuse the policy, there are still mechanisms where the board could overturn the decision.”

Evaluations Not Public

Norton’s supporters have questioned why she was removed in the first place, but they’ve not heard any answers from system officials. That’s a big part of what is fueling frustration, several faculty members at the university said. Susan Cusato, associate professor and chair of science education and environmental studies, said that Carter was repeatedly asked at a public meeting what he thought needed to change on the campus.

“He’s avoided answering the question,” she said.

Trustees evaluated Norton in July, but that report has not been made public. System officials said Connecticut law forbids them from releasing the documents without Norton’s expressed permission, and she hasn’t granted it.

Norton’s supporters herald her work establishing a first-year experience program, among other initiatives. She was not universally loved, however. Unionized faculty, for instance, frequently filed grievances against Norton early in her tenure.

Efforts to reach the former president Thursday were unsuccessful.

In addition to concerns about Norton’s ouster, faculty members have objected to the process by which her interim successor was chosen. The Faculty Senate had pushed for an internal person to take the post, hoping that someone familiar with the campus wouldn’t take as long to come up to speed for what is by definition a temporary appointment. Instead, Carter selected Stanley Battle, former president of North Carolina A&T State University. Battle and Carter were colleagues at Eastern Connecticut State University, where Carter had previously served as president.

“We’re going to put our best foot forward and work with him as best we can, but we’re in an awkward position because the process of his appointment and our exclusion from that process has made us quite angry,” said Johnson, the Senate president. “It looks like [Carter] just chose a friend.”

Battle will be paid an annual salary of $280,200, which means that Southern Connecticut will be paying out two presidential-level salaries -- Norton’s and Battle’s -- in the midst of a budget crunch.

“You’re basically laying out an extra $300,000 to have two presidents,” Johnson said, “when you really only need one.”

 

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