Two weeks ago, the leaders of Connecticut's public two- and four-year colleges gathered for a regular monthly meeting of campus chief executives at the office of the state's new higher education system. As the meeting ended, the president of the system board, Robert A. Kennedy, asked the community college presidents in attendance to stay behind to meet with the system's human resources chief, Steve Weinberger.
What Weinberger told the 10 two-year leaders in attendance (one missed the meeting and one left the room to take a phone call) stunned the group: the system was offering them a buyout with a year's severance in return for their resignation or retirement, and they had until Oct. 31 to request and accept it.
After that "safe harbor" period that would give the presidents some level of "self-determination," the two-year-college leaders were told, some of them might be “tapped on the shoulder” and told that they had a year remaining, under financial and other terms less generous than the buyout on the table now.
Why system leaders made such an offer, what they hoped to accomplish, and whether they hoped to encourage a few or many of the two-year-college chiefs to leave their jobs – or possibly to eliminate some of the institutions’ presidential positions altogether -- has been the subject of much speculation in local newspapers in recent days. (The local papers have since continued to track this, and system officials have insisted in recent days that they have no plans to eliminate positions.)
Those newspaper accounts have been filled, too, with insistent statements by system leaders that they made no such buyout offer, with some Connecticut officials dismissing the idea as the misguided account of one president, Gena Glickman of Manchester Community College, who has criticized aspects of the system's new policy on developmental education.
"That’s not what was said in that room," Michael Meotti, executive vice president of the state college system, told Inside Higher Ed early last week when asked if the presidents as a group had been presented with a buyout offer. Glickman's account of the meeting, Meotti said, "does not match reality."
But two other presidents who were at the meeting described it to Inside Higher Ed in terms similar to Glickman's -- and refuted system officials' denials. One of the other presidents requested anonymity, saying that system officials appeared to be targeting Glickman for her criticisms of state policies. But another added her name alongside that of Glickman, whom she said was being "hung out to dry." (Several others declined or did not respond to requests for comment.)
“President Glickman’s account of the meeting was accurate,” Barbara Douglass, president of Northwestern Connecticut Community College, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “My colleagues aren’t coming forward because we are increasingly in an atmosphere of intimidation and people are rightfully afraid for their jobs.”
Change and Contention
This has been a contentious 18 months for Connecticut’s community colleges, as a state law approved in 2011 dissolved both their system and the four-college Connecticut State University system and merged them (along with the online Charter Oak State College) into the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. (The University of Connecticut was left on its own.) In addition, the last year has seen the passage of legislation aimed at eliminating remedial coursework in the state. Some of those changes have been controversial, and Glickman has been among the more outspoken in questioning them.
It was in that context that the presidents gathered in Hartford on Sept. 24 for their regular meeting, where the usual mix of academic, financial and other issues were discussed.
But when the community college leaders, teed up by President Kennedy, met with Weinberger, he laid out the details of the possible buyout – promising flexibility in structuring payments “to avoid tax implications,” giving the presidents plentiful details about where the money for the buyouts would come from, and encouraging them to hire lawyers to review the agreements should they opt to seek one. No mention was made of the developmental education law or any other issues, say several presidents who were there.
The System's Statement
Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (ConnSCU)’s central office leadership is trying to accommodate two goals at the same time to: 1) Provide Connecticut students with a high quality education that helps them meet tough career and life challenges in a very competitive world; and 2) Recognize that in order to do so will drive change that may be difficult for some to accept. Our ultimate obligation is to our students and to the people of Connecticut. We welcome everyone who wants to be a part of this change and endeavor to treat fairly those who don’t.
Balancing these sometimes conflicting goals is what led to recent conversations with our community college presidents. This conversation started with a meeting of community college presidents where an explanation was provided of how these goals would be addressed in the regular presidential evaluation process that should precede a Board of Regents decision on reappointment. The explanation focused on the application of longstanding system presidential employment policies to this year’s process. The meeting did not discuss the implications for any individual president. That discussion would follow in meetings with each president separately.
This approach is consistent with practice in both of the former university and community college systems. The discussions start with central office leadership and the presidents. At the conclusion of those discussions, recommendations for reappointment are made to the Board of Regents.
Some misleading statements have been made about what took place at the meeting. In order to correct that and dispel the rumors we have heard, we offer the following:
> There is no intent, effort or plans to replace or terminate presidential positions at the 12 colleges or to merge community colleges. Any community college president positions not renewed would be filled through normal presidential search procedures.
> Community college presidents do not enter into employment contracts; rather, they are appointed annually by the Board for a standard period of 12 months.
> The presidents work under a set of employment policies that have been in place for many years. The policies give the presidents — who have served more than three years — the right to 12 months continued employment after notice of non-reappointment. Payment of compensation for the notice period can be accelerated.
> The 12 community college presidents have not been offered a “buy out” and no one was asked to resign.
> Central office leadership has been meeting with some presidents during the last two weeks. System leadership will complete discussions with any interested presidents by the end of the month. Sometime after that, the presidential evaluation process will start for those who have not entered into a mutually agreed upon separation agreement.
“This is not personal, this is business,” several quoted Weinberger as saying. He told the two-year-college leaders that “all bets would be off” for those who did not seek a buyout as of Oct. 31, implying, they said, that at least some would be asked to leave.
Connecticut’s community college presidents are on one-year contracts normally, so the idea that they would be subject to an annual review – and could be at risk of being replaced at almost any time – is not extraordinary or out of step with the system's policies. But the group buyout offer, which Glickman described in an e-mail message to colleagues that quickly gained wide distribution, was highly unusual, and sent reverberations through Connecticut’s two-year-college system that got the attention of community college leaders nationally.
When Inside Higher Ed learned about the purported offers last week, a reporter called Meotti to ask if the accounts of a mass buyout offer on Sept. 24 were true. Asked if the assembled presidents, as a group, were told that they had until the end of October to seek a buyout, Meotti said “that is not what was told to people.”
“There were conversations about the normal processes in this system, and the annual review of presidents,” said Meotti, who acknowledged that he himself was not in the room. “There have been follow-on conversations about” that since the Sept. 24 meeting, he said, but “that’s not what happened in that room.”
Asked why presidents might be saying that the collected campus leaders had together been presented with a buyout offer if that was not the case, Meotti mentioned the disagreements over remedial education and said that some presidents had problems with the new policies and seemed disinclined to abide by them. “There may be some who, as we work through these issues, may not be able to work with us,” he said.
He brought up Glickman, whom he cited as the source of what he called the “rumors” about the buyout offers to the presidents. “If you heard it from her, I would be wary. It does not match reality.”
System officials similarly singled Glickman out as an unreliable -- and possibly solitary -- source for the buyout reports in numerous local newspaper stories in Connecticut. But in the days since, several other presidents have backed her version of events, and challenged Meotti’s assertions that the presidents had been told that the possible changes in leadership were tied to their perceived failure to carry out the remediation law.
“There was absolutely no discussion of developmental education at the meeting,” said one president who asked not to be identified.
Nor, Douglass and other presidents say, did system officials discuss their normal processes for reviewing presidents at the Sept. 24 meeting, as Meotti asserted and as system officials suggested in an e-mail message sent Friday evening. (See text of the e-mail message in the box with this article.) That’s why the buyout discussion so jolted many of those in the room.
“Under the old [community college] system, we had a very clear process for being evaluated, where we set our goals for the coming year each June and then met with the system each May to discuss what we had and hadn’t accomplished, and what that meant,” Douglass said. “Last year we weren’t evaluated at all, and then we get this, with no context at all. It’s mystifying.”
It is also, Douglass said, a sign of a very different kind of environment in which Connecticut’s community colleges are now operating, she said. “We have gone from a higher ed climate that we’re used to, of open and honest discourse and sometimes disagreement, to one where we’re very much careful about what we say. It’s, you better watch what you’re saying, because if it’s not in accord with top administration, you’re going to be labeled the non-team player.”