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Connecticut looks to move past pay scandals and remediation reform controversy

Connecticut's Reorganization
January 14, 2013

The ideas were bold. The execution was quick. The result has left many people -- faculty members, administrators, students, legislators, taxpayers -- skeptical about the effectiveness, if not the underlying strategy, of Connecticut's higher education reorganization.

In the spring of 2011, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy floated the idea of consolidating the state’s community college system and its embattled state university system (which excludes the University of Connecticut, the state's research university). Both systems, though particularly the state universities, had run into their fair share of problems and neither was exactly thriving, and the governor argued that by reorganizing, the state could save money on administrative costs and redirect that money to instruction. The state Department of Higher Education anticipated that the merger would save $4.3 million a year.

Connecticut was certainly not the first state to turn to consolidation as a way to save money, but the way the merger played out has raised questions about how quickly dramatic change can and should be made, about how to balance power between the government and the colleges and universities, and about how to move forward when a reorganization doesn't go smoothly.

"Process really matters -- the care with which people propose ideas, involve people, communicate, and build trust," said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). 

NCHEMS published a critical analysis of the proposed merger in April 2011, contending that the reorganization would neither be cost-effective nor support the institutions' missions. The reports' concerns were not unique. Some lawmakers wanted to spend longer studying the potential effects of consolidation, and others pushed for the creation of a strategic plan before the process moved forward. 

But eventually, legislators reached a compromise, and by the start of the 2011-12 school year, the Connecticut State University System, the Connecticut Community College system, and the online Charter Oak College had merged into the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system.

The speed of the transition was not inherently a problem, McGuinness said, but he believes the state left out some crucial steps along the way. 

"You need to be pretty sure that you can give a sense of direction, continuity and stability to the people who do most of the work in the system," he said. "If you create a degree of uncertainty for the faculty members and the staff -- the people who serve students -- I think you've got real problems."

Critical to creating that sense of purpose is selecting the right leadership -- people who are clear on the goals of the system and the state, McGuinness said. But McGuinness feels those goals were never quite articulated and agreed upon in Connecticut, making running the system a tough task for anyone.

To steer the new, consolidated system, Malloy recruited Robert Kennedy. The former president of the University of Maine was brought in as the interim president of the Board of Regents, a new entity created with the system merger. The “interim” was dropped from Kennedy's title even before the entire Board of Regents had been assembled.

That might have been the young system’s first misstep -- but it was one no one considered until long after the fact.

That’s because, by all accounts, the first year as a single system was ostensibly a success. The regents announced in early 2012 that they had eliminated 24 administrative positions at the system level, with an average salary of $141,000. In June, the system reported $5.5 million in savings, more than anticipated, as a result of the consolidation – money that could be used to add as many as 45 teaching or student service jobs. That allowed system officials to show benefits of the merger for campuses, winning political points.

During that first academic year, the new system took steps toward developing course articulation agreements between the community colleges and universities, something the institutions had struggled to do when the systems were separated. The new Transfer and Articulation Plan, which will allow students to move easily among the system’s 17 colleges and universities, is being implemented now, according to a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, Colleen Flanagan Johnson, and the changes to remediation go into effect in fall 2014.

Lawmakers also succeeded in passing remediation reform -- a victory in most legislators’ eyes, even if faculty and higher education experts balked at the proposition. 

“In one year, to get that done is phenomenal,” said State Sen. Beth Bye, co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. “That we were able to pass remedial education reform – I don’t think that ever would have passed if we had two systems.”

Not everyone is so quick to label remediation reform a success, and faculty members in particular have been skeptical about the bill, which, while toned down significantly from its first iteration, limits students to one semester of traditional remediation, after which all remedial work must be embedded in credit-bearing courses. But it turned out the debate over the remediation law was just the tip of the iceberg.

In September of this year, reports surfaced that community college presidents had been offered a buyout and told that those who chose not to accept it could be dismissed. The Board of Regents denied those assertions, and insisted instead that presidents would be evaluated based on the usual standards and process (though the system's executive vice president, Michael Meotti, later informed the board that presidents were, in fact, being evaluated earlier than usual and had been offered an “expedited exit” option). A memo published by a local newspaper revealed that the expedited exit and review process was a reaction to dissent over remediation reform -- essentially, presidents who didn’t agree with the new law were being given a way out. 

That controversy became a side note, though, when days later it was revealed that several system executives had received raises without the approval of the Board of Regents. Kennedy, the president of the system, had ordered raises for 22 officials, thinking he had the power to do so. Meotti received a 27 percent pay increase, totaling $49,000, and others also received double-digit raises. Kennedy said the raises had been made because the recipients had taken on new duties in the reorganization, but that did little to calm the uproar.

The legislature was angry. Students and faculty were angry. And the Board of Regents, though not outwardly condemning Kennedy’s decision, froze the raises and formed a committee to review and develop procedures for deciding compensation.

Within a week, calls for Kennedy’s resignation began, bolstered by the discovery that he had spent six weeks of “professional development” time working from a second home in Minnesota over the summer. On Oct. 12, both Kennedy and Meotti resigned.

The incident revealed one major problem that had been at the heart of each of the merged system’s hiccups: it was never clear who was in charge of what.

The decision to grant raises while most state employees were enduring a wage freeze was arguably questionable on its own. But what caused even more anger and suspicion was that Kennedy had granted the raises without consulting the board. He told The Connecticut Mirror: “I approved them mistakenly thinking I had the authority to do so.” Only after the scandal emerged did the board begin reviewing its compensation procedures.

The same confusion -- about who is responsible for what, and which decisions must be approved by whom -- seems to have colored the selection of Kennedy as president in the first place.

In evaluating what went wrong in the initial leadership selection, it became clear that Kennedy’s appointment was not entirely by the book – or maybe that the book had not been written yet. Kennedy was brought in by the governor, who was also the one who had pushed for the merger, and then offered the permanent (not interim) position before the full board had even been assembled. There were no other candidates.

“The way that the appointments went, it didn’t feel like the Board of Regents that was set up to supervise [the selection of administrators] had enough say,” Bye said, referring to the appointments of Kennedy and Meotti. “The board chair said he didn’t even know about the contract specifics.”

Board Chair Lewis Robinson Jr. was unavailable to comment for this article, but Flanagan Johnson said that although the turnover in leadership was a “disappointment,” everyone is still committed to the principles behind the reorganization.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” she said, “but our main priority has been and continues to be the success of the students who choose to attend our institutions.”

Though no one from the Board of Regents commented specifically on the process by which Kennedy was selected, it’s worth noting that in searching for a new president – the system is currently being led by an interim president Philip Austin, former president of the University of Connecticut – the board is in charge. Currently, the board is establishing a search committee of students, faculty and staff members, and other stakeholders, and is bringing in a search firm. The board hopes to select a president before the start of the next school year.

Notable in this plan is the absence of the governor. Though Malloy will make the final appointment, it is up to the board to recommend a candidate, essentially the opposite of how the process worked the first time around.

Flanagan Johnson, however, said this is not because of any confusion the first time around. “The reorganization bill was a complex piece of legislation,” she said. “There was a commitment to hit the ground running and to begin immediately implementing the new law. All parties involved are all clear about our respective roles.”

But Bye, the state senator who was a vocal advocate for the reorganization and the remediation reform, notes that not everyone feels that same clarity. “I think people are feeling the governor has too much say in who was where,” Bye said.

In retrospect, Bye suspects the transition may have gone too fast, or may not have been planned thoroughly enough. “Maybe the legislation should have been more clear about a transition period, from the existing system to the new system, with the steps spelled out more clearly about who searches and who appoints,” she said.

Another change she might make, if she could rework the consolidation legislation, is taking some of the power out of the governor’s hands. As the bill is written, the governor currently appoints 9 of the 15 members of the Board, and Bye said that she worries that may be too much.

Bye also wonders if, in making the reforms, the state shifted power from the campuses to the governor too quickly.. There was more room in the bill, she said, for the state to “respect higher ed’s processes.” 

She points to remediation reform as an example. Bye herself was the one who introduced the remediation bill, inspired by Complete College America, but in reflecting on the turmoil of the past year, she concedes that perhaps the same goal could have been achieved without stepping on so many toes.

“We said the new system would still respect campus-based decision making, particularly around developmental education reform,” she said. “One of the big missteps was the Board of Regents trying to force a form on the campuses on how they would work with students who have remediation needs.”

Instead, Bye said, the legislation should have left room for colleges with successful remediation programs to continue what they were doing. The legislature could also have slowed down and listened more to the concerns of campus officials, she said.

“We put a very aggressive timeframe on remedial education reform, and they might have been responding to that,” she said. “With higher ed, it’s not like other agencies, and I think policymakers and the governor need to understand that."

The Role of Governors

But others are quick to point out that gubernatorial involvement in public higher education is not inherently a bad thing.

Eric Fingerhut, vice president of education and STEM learning at the Battelle Memorial Institute, was the first chancellor of the University System of Ohio, formed in 2007 to bring the state’s colleges and universities under one umbrella. He was appointed by the governor, a change in procedure made when the system formed, and his term ended when the governor’s ended.

“Prior to my appointment … the governor had some influence, but not really a direct influence on the Board of Regents,” Fingerhut said.

The decision to give the governor more direct power in higher education was made to help better connect higher ed outcomes with the state’s needs, Fingerhut, a former state legislator, said. And he thinks it worked.

“I was a strong supporter of the governor and the legislature taking a stronger hand in leading the Board of Regents … because when I was in the legislature, it was my experience that there was frequently a disconnect between the education and economic development priorities, between the workforce and talent development priorities of the state and our system of higher education,” he said.

By giving the governor a more direct link to the Board, Fingerhut said, the university system was better able to develop a coherent, focused strategy -- one that was actually approved by the legislature. (Some policy makers questioned the wisdom of creating overly close links between the governor and the system head in Ohio.)

The downside, he noted, is that his appointment was coterminous with the governor's own term, which means fairly quick turnover for the leader of the state’s higher education system when there's a change in the governor's mansion. Connecticut’s reorganization bill also specified that the president would be coterminous with the governor, though Kennedy’s contract did not reflect that and the board has talked of trying to change that part of the legislation, according to The Hartford Courant.

Though he acknowledges there is no one-size-fits-all solution in higher education, Fingerhut said that Ohio at the time needed a “more centralized leadership focus,” and a system that granted the governor significant power allowed for that.

McGuinness, of NCHEMS, said he sees a trend toward increased gubernatorial involvement in higher education across the country. In particular, he said, governors are often trying to gain more control of coordinating boards. (The original draft of the Connecticut reorganization bill gave the governor the power to appoint every board member, not just 9 out of 15.)

"In the short term, you can see some advantages, but what it really means is it multiplies an already unstable political system," he said. 

In a time of transition, however, McGuinness said it might be necessary for the governor to be more involved than normal. The trick, he said, is finding a way for the governor to back off gracefully.

The next step for the system will be crucial. Bye and others have acknowledged that the string of hasty decisions hurt the system’s image, and they are eager to get back on the right track with the selection of a new president.

“We need a new president to come in with a lot of credibility, particularly with the community colleges,” Bye said. “That leader is going to be, I think, the most important next step. It’s crucial that they’re perceived as listening and that they follow protocol.”

McGuinness said the new leader needs to push for a strategic plan that encompasses the community colleges, the state universities, the University of Connecticut, and the independent sector. He also recommends that the board seek a president who understands the differences in mission between the community colleges and the state universities and who will be willing to grant campus leaders the autonomy to do what their institutions do best.

"One of the real tricks with effective systems has to do with focusing a great deal on decentralization and on giving campuses much more flexibility," he said. 

Most importantly, however, McGuinness said the board and the legislature need to concentrate on the future, not the past.

"One of the things about major changes like this is that once they're done, the focus really needs to shift from why they shouldn't have been done to how to really make it work," he said. 

 

 

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