Already in the midst of restructuring, Connecticut’s public higher education system was thrown into turmoil last Friday by the resignation of Robert Kennedy, president of the State’s Board of Regents for Higher Education.
Under pressure from Conn. Gov. Dannel Malloy, Kennedy resigned last week after spending a week trying to explain his illegal approval of a series of raises to staff members totaling $260,000 as well as accusations of attempting to push out the presidents of the state’s 12 community colleges. Board of Regents Executive Vice President Michael Meotti, who was given a $47,000 raise, resigned last week as well. Former University of Connecticut President Philip Austin, who was recommended to serve as interim president by the Board of Regents following the resignations, will replace Kennedy.
The change in leadership comes just as the state’s public higher education system adjusts to a newly consolidated structure. The Board of Regents, which is comprised of 15 voting members, was created in 2011 to combine oversight of Connecticut’s four state universities, 12 community colleges and one online community college.
“I’m discouraged,” Higher Education Co-Chair Representative Roberta Willis said. “This is a big distraction from delivering higher education in Connecticut.”
Kennedy, who could not be reached for comment, had been on the job for barely over a year, having been appointed by Malloy in August 2011 to run the newly formed board. In the press release announcing his resignation, Kennedy said that he is optimistic that the board will “succeed greatly in its efforts to move a change agenda focused on preparing students for the global economy.”
The reforms to the state’s education system are intended to improve collaboration between the 17 institutions, such as making transferring from one college to another easier.
Austin comes to the job with significant experience as a public university administrator, having served as president of the University of Connecticut from 1996 to 2007 and chancellor of the University of Alabama system for seven years before that.
“[Austin] will bring much needed stability to the Board of Regents,” Malloy said in a press release. “He’s also the right person to make sure the reforms that have started to be implemented continue.”
Although Kennedy’s departure represents a change of leadership at the highest levels of the state’s public higher education system, administrators at various public institutions said they do not think it will have a significant impact on student life. Eastern Connecticut State University Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Carmen Cid said she has not heard any students discussing the change.
Other state officials interviewed echoed Cid’s evaluation, suggesting that the day-to-day operations of the institutions will not be affected by the leadership change.
Colleen Flanagan, a spokesperson for the Board of Regents, emphasized that the quality of education students receive at state institutions depends upon the faculty and that “nothing about that has changed.”
Despite widespread support for Austin, Malloy has been criticized about the accusations surrounding Kennedy’s departure. Republicans in the General Assembly have accused the governor of improperly hiring Kennedy last year without the board’s formal approval, even though the board did not exist at the time of Kennedy’s hiring.
“Robert Kennedy was Malloy’s $340,000 man,” Republican State Party Chairman Jerry Labriola, referring to Kennedy’s salary, told the Connecticut Post. “The governor has botched the higher education consolidation.”
Others have responded that the reaction to Kennedy’s resignation has been over-politicized, and Willis suggested that Austin’s appointment should instead be “a way to start fresh.”
The 17 universities and colleges overseen by the board, according to its website, currently enroll 95,962 full-time and part-time students.