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Higher ed's raises, maces and scandals

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published October 16. 2012 4:00AM

On the surface, it looks as if the great higher education salary scandal was handled pretty smoothly with no stonewalling, only a little partisan bickering and the required departures, but it left us with a reformed state agency still in need of reform.

Just five days after The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org) reported that Robert Kennedy, the president of the new Board of Regents for Higher Education, had unilaterally and illegally given huge raises to 21 of his top executives, Kennedy resigned.

His farewell came after the governor expressed disappointment, as only a governor can, and there were bipartisan calls for his head from some legislative leaders.

Kennedy's resignation was followed within hours by the departure of his second in command, Michael Meotti, the board's executive vice president and recipient of the largest of the 21 raises Kennedy had given without asking his board.

Meotti, a former state senator given the job for his political smarts, was apparently so dazzled by his $48,000 raise to $232,244, he failed to advise Kennedy that the raises were against the law.

Meotti or the board's public affairs director, who got a $20,000 raise, might also have mentioned to Kennedy that many state employees, not to mention other taxpayers, have been getting along on frozen wages for quite a while, so, even if done legally, the raises would have been a public relations disaster. But would a PR counselor earning more than the governor be expected to know that?

The mess also called attention to other goodies in the five-year contract given Kennedy, the one-time president of the University of Maine hired to oversee the merger of the four-year colleges - other than the University of Connecticut - with the community colleges and to clean up the mess that was the previous commission.

One of the issues with the old board of higher education was its overpaid executives. Kennedy's predecessor, David Carter, had his pay raised from $247,500 to $400,000 in three years and The Courant's Colin McEnroe reminded us Sunday he made the state buy him a $6,300 mace to carry in academic processions.

In addition to his $340,000 base pay, Kennedy had a $25,000 expense account, a car, two weeks' vacation and six weeks off every year for "professional development." That added up to 44 weeks of work for $365,000. It's less than Carter's $400,000 and he presumably used the old mace on ceremonial occasions but then, he'd only been on the job a year.

Kennedy's professional development didn't work out too well either. Instead of engaging in standard activities like research or writing or learning more about his job, Kennedy developed professionally for six weeks at his summer home in Minnesota.

He even had a cute term for his version of professional development, explaining at a press conference that the six weeks at his summer place might be better defined as "working remotely."

How about "not remotely working?"

After the Mirror revelations were published, Malloy did point out $5.5 million in savings had been produced under Kennedy's direction. And Roy Occhiogrosso, the most political of Malloy's aides, tried to dismiss criticism by prominent Republican legislator and congressional candidate Andrew Roraback as campaign rhetoric.

But then other grownups joined Roraback. The governor's fellow Democrats and co-chairwomen of the legislature's higher education committee, Sen. Beth Bye and Rep. Roberta Willis, quickly called for Kennedy's resignation and Willis said Meotti should go too. Meotti had already given his raise back and the other executives had had the givebacks done for them.

There's more. Just before the salary scandal broke, Manchester Community College President Gina Glickman revealed she and her 11 colleagues had been told to take buyouts by Halloween or risk dismissal. Apparently, they weren't with the program and getting rid of them was the solution. (Of course, they'd have to be paid off.)

When Meotti said it wasn't so, another community college president came forward and Kennedy ended up explaining it had been an unfortunate miscommunication. This will have to be settled quickly by former UConn President Philip Austin, who was named to replace Kennedy on an interim basis.

It should be noted too that the top legislative Democrats have been unusually quiet about all this, but perhaps they were out of town getting professionally developed.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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