Can someone stop the Board of Regents before they do even more damage?

Last week it was the resignation of the President and Executive Vice President of Connecticut’s new Board of Regents, the group responsible for overseeing the merged system of Connecticut’s State Universities and Community and Technical Colleges.

The solution, we were told, was that the actual Board of Regents would step forward, take control and actually perform the duties allocated to them under state law.

At their first meeting, they reinstate the inappropriate and previously illegal raises for the Vice President for State Universities and the Vice President for Community Colleges.

Then they hire, as expected, former UConn President Phil Austin to run the Board of Regents.

The Board of Regents votes to give interim President Austin a base salary of $340,000, but say they are withholding any of the extra benefits that pushed up the previous president, Robert Kennedy’s salary, by about $100,000.

Austin’s current base salary at the University of Connecticut is in the range of $285,000.

However, in 2010, Austin actually had a salary and compensation package of $419,000 and last year, Austin’s package was over $427,700.

So what gives?

The actual contract the Board of Regents approved doesn’t actually line up with what the Board of Regents reported to the media and the public

Austin’s contract with the Board of Regents reads, “The President shall receive all normal Board of Regents benefits, including, but not limited to, health insurance for the President and any dependents, dental insurance, retirement plans, deferred compensation plans, flexible spending accounts, vacation and sick leave.”

First off, as an employee of the University of Connecticut, Mr. Austin already gets more than $50,000 in non-salary benefits.  Some of those benefits may very well continue, even if Austin takes a full unpaid leave of absence from UConn.  However, even if he gives up those benefits from UConn, the cost to the Board of Regents to provide “all normal Board of Regents benefits” will be as much, if not more, depending on how the Regent’s policy handles deferred compensation and vacation and sick leave.

Normally, items such as vacation and sick leave are provided to full-time, year-round employees and not professors, meaning that in addition to his base salary of $340,000 and his $50,000 or so in benefits, Austin could actually find his total compensation package going even higher under the wording of the Regent’s contract.

As the CT Mirror reported, the Regents proudly proclaimed that although Austin, “will be making the same $340,000 annual salary as his predecessor — but none of the additional lucrative incentives — in exchange for leading the state’s embattled, merged public college system on a temporary basis.”

That statement is simply not true.

Worse, as the CTMirror went on to explain, “The regents approved Austin’s pay without public discussion following a one-hour-and-40-minute closed-door session.”

Didn’t these people learn anything from the initial catastrophe?

With no public discussion, there is no public record, which means there is absolutely no public accountability about how these compensation issues might be interpreted.

As the Mirror reported, the “Chair of the Board of Regents explained that “Austin did not seek any compensation beyond the $340,000 annual pay that had been granted to Kennedy.”

Of course he didn’t ask for more, because he didn’t need to ask for any more.  Much of it was already part of the basic compensation package that came with the contract.

Finally, there is an additional benefit in the Austin contract that he never had under any contract with the University.  The contract approved for Austin reads, “The Board of Regents shall, with prior approval of the Board, within available appropriations and in accordance with the policies of the Board of Regents, reimburse the President for professional development that is appropriate and in the best interest of the system as determined by the Board of Regents and such necessary travel expenses associated with professional development.”

While it is unclear what such language might possibly mean, one thing is for certain; UConn’s presidential contract has no language to “reimburse the President for professional development that is appropriate and in the best interest of the system.”

So the Board of Regents can claim all they want that their new contract isn’t like the one that Governor Malloy’s Office negotiated with Kennedy, but Austin is walking away with a lot more than the $340,000 “base salary” that the Board mentioned.

Board of Regents Newsflash: Let’s put in a chief of staff with no public higher education experience

First Governor Malloy selected former UConn President Phil Austin to be the interim President of the Connecticut Board of Regents, despite the fact that he has no experience running community colleges.

And today it has  become public that they will be adding a new Chief of Staff with NO EXPERIENCE with public higher education at all.  The Chief of Staff’s position is to oversee the day-to-day operations of the agency in charge of Connecticut’s State Universities and Community Colleges.

Keith M. Phaneuf and Jacqueline Rabe Thomas of the CT Mirror are reporting that, “Deputy State Labor Commissioner Dennis Murphy, an administrator with longstanding ties to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, will become the interim chief of staff for the state’s merged public college system.”  http://www.ctmirror.org/story/17913/governor-ally-become-college-systems-next-chief-staff

According to the CT Mirror, “Murphy, who will be appointed by Philip E. Austin, interim president for the Board of Regents for Higher Education, also will retain his labor title and split his time between the department and the college system.”

Earlier in the week the Board of Regents informed the existing chief of staff, former Malloy spokesperson Colleen Flanagan, that she was returning to her post as communications director for the Regents, and a new Chief of Staff would be added with a salary of $129,000 plus benefits

Murphy was one of Malloy’s earliest appointees, becoming Deputy Labor commissioner in January 2011.

Murphy previously served as Malloy’s Director of Human Resources in Stamford from 2004 to 2008.

Before that Murphy served as Bridgeport Mayor Joe Gamin’s Director of Labor Relations.

Murphy is the spouse of John Stafstrom, who is the former Democratic Town Committee chairman of Bridgeport and a partner in the law firm of Pullman and Connolly.

John Stafstrom and Pullman and Connolly has received a series of high-profile state contracts since Malloy became Governor including being given the lucrative job of handling the state’s legal work for the Jackson Laboratories project and the new Connecticut Airport Authority.

A graduate of Fairfield University and Boston College, Murphy appears to have had absolutely no experience with any public higher education entities in his career, making him an odd selection for a new public  university system that educates well over 100,000 Connecticut residents.

Why yes Virginia, things can always get worse: Board of Regents Hire Phil Austin

When I read the Courant news update, I started to laugh….but it soon turned into hysterical howling;

The Courant wrote;

“At an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, the board of regents sought to restore its image and some order, voting to hire former University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin on an interim basis and appointing a committee to research the issues that led to Kennedy’s resignation.”

As expected, the ill-fated merger of the Connecticut State University System and the Connecticut Community and Technical College System was crashing and burning.

Robert Kennedy, the President of the Board of Regents, had resigned in disgrace.

Michael Meotti, the Executive Vice President, was about to follow Kennedy out the door.

Together, they (and others still employed), had allocated or benefited from $300,000 in illegal pay raises, despite a state law making it absolutely and totally clear that only the Board of Regents has the authority to set compensation.

So the Board of Regents stepped up to save the day….and they;

(1)   Hire former University of Connecticut President Phil Austin

And

(2)   Set up a committee to “research the issues that led to Kennedy’s resignation.”

And politicians wonder why the people of the United States have lost faith in their government?

In the coming days, we’ll have the opportunity to explore some of these issues in greater detail, but here is something to keep in mind as you read the various news accounts.

Having grown up around the University of Connecticut, and having served as its State Representative for a decade, I consider myself to be one of UConn’s strongest supporters and biggest critics.  As a legislator, I led the effort to pass the landmark Higher Education Flexibility Legislation.  I designed and managed the public relations campaign that helped pass the UConn 2000 program.  And as Co-Chairman of the Governor’s Commission to investigate the problems with UConn 2000, my commission members and I spent hundreds of hours, during 2005, looking into the disaster associated with how UConn implemented the program during its first ten years.

With that background I read the prepared statement that Governor Malloy released following the decision to hire Phil Austin to “repair the image” of the Board of Regents.

Governor Malloy said;

“Dr. Austin is an outstanding choice by the Board of Regents…”His reputation is beyond reproach… [He] was instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn programs…”

I too know that Phil Austin’s role was, “instrumental in overseeing the implementation” of UConn 2000.  That was exactly the problem.

As the Governor’s Commission documented;

At one point there were 5,000 students living in dormitories that did not remotely meet fire code.  In fact, students were actually allowed to move into the dorms, despite the fact that those buildings had not even been properly inspected.

The fire code issues were so severe that for months and months in 2005-2006, UConn fire fighters were stationed in and around dorms, 24 hours a day, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime costs.

The most conservative estimates are that it cost taxpayers $60-$80 million dollars or more to fix the problems that occurred under Mr. Austin’s watch.

In addition, nearly every building that UConn built from 1995 to 2005 was over budget, and in a number of cases, costs were assigned to other building projects in an attempt to cover up the costs overruns.

In one case, my Commission discovered that $6 million dollars was spent to renovate the locker rooms and coaches’ offices in the basement of Gampel Pavilion.  Rather then put the project out to bid, the construction and the costs were assigned to the new School of Business that was being built across the street.

Just as incredible was that fact that, although the UConn Board of Trustees was assured on multiple occasions that the Gampel project was being funded with private dollars, the money was never raised, and the project was actually paid for with student fees.  When the situation became public, UConn called the money a 10 year, no interest loan, and promised that the money would be repaid to the operating fund.

Meanwhile, a project to renovate Mr. Austin’s Presidential Residence was scheduled to cost $280,000.  When completed the cost was over $1.2 million including cost overruns, floor to ceiling mirrors in one of the bedrooms and a new bathroom with an oversized jacuzzi.

And when Mr. Austin’s tenure as President came to an end, but his new condo in Farmington wasn’t ready, he was allowed to stay in the Presidential Residence, while the incoming President, Mr. Hogan, moved into a nearby private $1 million home that the University rented from one of its biggest donors.

During the Commission’s work in the summer of 2005, I regularly updated both Nancy Wyman and Mark Ojakian, who at the time served as the State and Deputy State Comptroller.

Now, as Lt. Governor and as the Governor’s Chief of Staff, I’m sure they would agree, Phil Austin was, “instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000.”  That was the problem.

But even putting aside all the UConn 2000 issues, the selection of Phil Austin as the interim President of the Board of Regents is beyond belief.

At the very core of the problems facing the Board of Regents was that neither Robert Kennedy nor Michael Meotti had any meaningful understanding or experience with community colleges, arguably the most vital part of our public system of higher education.

The selection of a new leader was the moment when their oversight could have been addressed.

Instead the Board of Regents and Governor Malloy choose someone who is even less positioned to understand and support Connecticut’s Community Colleges.

Phil Austin’s higher education administrative experience is having served as President of Colorado State University, the Chancellor of The University of Alabama System and the President of the University of Connecticut.

Between the problems at UConn and his lack of experience with community colleges, it is hard to imagine that the Board of Regents could have made a worse choice when it comes to leading Connecticut’s State Universities and Community Colleges.