President to Oversee Self

December 8, 2009

In an unusual move, the president of the Community College of Rhode Island, one of only three public postsecondary institutions in the small state, will become the next head of the state’s higher education governing board while maintaining his current job.

At a Monday evening meeting, Raymond M. Di Pasquale was named “acting commissioner” of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, a 15-member board of which 11 members are gubernatorial appointments. The board oversees the state’s three public institutions: the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island. Di Pasquale will become the first individual in the state’s history to occupy both the role of president of one of these institutions and commissioner of the state’s higher education governing board.

The decision comes only a week after Di Pasquale was publicly named one of three finalists for the presidency of Suffolk County Community College, the largest two-year institution in the State University of New York system. Monday morning, Di Pasquale announced that he had declined the Suffolk job to stay as president of the Community College of Rhode Island and accept an offer to become the state board’s commissioner.

Charles S. Lenth, vice president for policy analysis and academic affairs of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, could not identify any other examples in which a sitting executive of a public institution was also the head of his or her statewide coordinating or governing board. Still, he said he was not surprised by Monday’s announcement, noting that a leadership decision of this sort was more likely to happen in a smaller state like Rhode Island where there are fewer institutions than in a larger state with a multitude of institutions.

Officials from the Rhode Island Board of Governors dismissed the idea that Di Pasquale’s holding the two positions presents any potential conflicts of interests.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned,” said Steven J. Maurano, who has served as the board’s interim commissioner since July. “The way the system is set up, the presidents of our three institutions don’t report to the commissioner; they report individually to the board. There’s no conflict here. We’re not asking our presidents to take a back seat to one of their own."

Though Maurano admitted that there's “no question” that the commissioner has “some influence on the board,” he explained that there are a number of “checks and balances” in place to ensure that the commission cannot abuse his or her position. For example, he noted that when the state appropriation for higher education comes to the board, the state legislature has already divvied it up between the institutions. In this way, Maurano noted, Di Pasquale could not direct additional funds to his institution.

Besides recognizing his familiarity with the system, the decision to name Di Pasquale commissioner was also a fiscally conscious one, Maurano said. As president of the community college, Di Pasquale earns $203,000. Upon taking on the role of board commissioner, he will receive a $62,000 raise. According to a Rhode Island statute, the commissioner is to be paid $135,000 -- a relatively low salary compared to other state boards. Maurano said Di Pasquale will maintain the “acting” prefix to his title until this statutory language can be changed to allow for his new compensation package.

“We expect this will likely save the system upward of $500,000 over the next year,” Maurano estimated. “We were about to hire an executive search firm to fill the commissioner position, and we likely would have had to increase the salary for that position to compete with other states. Now, we don’t have to do either. Also, if [Di Pasquale] had taken the Suffolk job, we would have had to hire another executive search firm for that job. That’s another fee we don’t have to pay. Also, we won’t have to increase that salary to better the pool of candidates to fill his presidency. Adding all of those costs together and comparing that to [Di Pasquale’s] raise means the system will save a lot of money.”

Nancy Carriuolo, president of Rhode Island College, did not return requests for comment on Di Pasquale’s appointment. But her counterpart from the state’s flagship institution offered praise for the decision following Monday’s board meeting.

David M. Dooley, president of the University of Rhode Island, said he is fully supportive of Di Pasquale and does not think his being a sitting president of a fellow state institution will prove a conflict with his tenure as commissioner.

“We were consulted early on in this process by the chairman of the Board of Governors, who wanted our candid input,” Dooley said. “At least on my part, I told him I’d be fully supportive. Although it’s certainly unusual, I think it’s a good move. It’s a smart move for higher education in Rhode Island. [Di Pasquale’s] very familiar with higher education in our state and is an outstanding candidate for the job.”

Dooley added that the board would serve as a “good check” on the new commissioner but noted that he did not anticipate any problems because of what he described as a “very collegial working relationship” between the state’s three institutions.

“The three presidents and the commissioner, we’ve more or less behaved as a group of equals,” Dooley said. “I don’t think that’s going to change. There’s no hierarchical distinction between us as a working group. We all approach our jobs working for what’s best for higher education in Rhode Island. Also, the commissioner role is more about policy, coordination and cooperation and less about governance.”

Those at the meeting, including Maurano and Dooley, said board members acknowledged the “unusual” nature of Di Pasquale’s appointment but that they also noted the dismal financial state influenced them to find what some deemed an “out-of-the-box solution.” Di Pasquale has a three-year contract; at its end, the board will review his performance to determine if it wants to keep him as commissioner long term.

After Monday’s meeting, Di Pasquale said he was humbled by what he deemed the “overwhelming support” for his being named commissioner. Though he acknowledged it will be a tough task running both a community college and a state system, he said he was up to the challenge. He also dismissed any notion of there being a conflict of interest in his taking the new position.

“I can advocate strongly for all three institutions,” Di Pasquale said. “In the past, the presidents have worked together. Also, I don’t think there are any perceptions in Rhode Island about there being any conflicts here. The fact that everyone has been so supportive is encouraging that I can be effective in this position.”

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