HARTFORD, Conn. — Robert Kennedy, president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education in Connecticut, resigned Friday morning amid controversy related to several actions, including improperly approving more than $262,206 in salary raises.
Democratic and Republican leaders of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee called for Kennedy’s resignation before the announcement by the board in a Friday press release. Democrats Beth Bye and Roberta Willis, co-chairwomen of the higher education committee, joined Republicans Toni Boucher and Timothy B. LeGeyt, ranking members of the committee, at a Thursday afternoon news conference at the Capitol calling for Kennedy to step aside.
Among the controversies surrounding Kennedy’s performance were the raises, the possible dismissal of community college presidents and Kennedy’s employment contract which allowed him to work from a vacation home in Minnesota for much of the summer.
Bye said that she feared the reform under way in higher education would be impeded without Kennedy’s removal. The board is in the midst of reforming and consolidating the state’s community college and state university systems.
“We don’t see how with the damage that’s been done in this case, the reform agenda can be carried through,” Bye said. “We believe right now that it’s damaging for the students if the system doesn’t move forward.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy, who handpicked Kennedy to lead the higher education administration, called for the board to “conduct a review of these matters, and take appropriate steps based on their findings.”
“The credibility of the central office has been damaged, and it needs to be restored as quickly as possible,” Malloy said.
During a meeting of more than an hour Thursday afternoon at the Legislative Office Building, legislators told board chairman Lewis J. Robinson and vice chairwoman Yvette Melendez that they wanted Kennedy out for two key reasons: the improper authorization of $262,206 in raises and the need for reform that they fear won’t go forward with Kennedy in place.
Willis said she was “incredulous” that Kennedy made the salary raise decisions without checking to see how to do it properly. Under Connecticut statute, Kennedy should have referred the recommended raises to the board of regents for a vote.
“If you are in higher education and you are familiar with issues like this,” Willis said, “you would check to see what the process is in your state for increasing someone’s compensation and apparently that wasn’t done.”
Boucher also criticized the approval of such sizable raises at a time when the state is suffering economically, has high unemployment and many of those who are employed are getting no raises.
Willis said the committee leaders would like to see those receiving the raises return the money.
The confusion with college presidents occurred when at least two of them thought that all 12 presidents in the system had been offered a buyout at a Sept. 24 meeting and were pressured to leave. Kennedy said this was a “miscommunication” and not a “buyout” or a “push-out.” He said the board staff sought to give the presidents a chance to leave “amicably” if they did not think they could support the agenda for reform.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Kennedy revealed that he spent six weeks at his summer home in Minnesota. Under his contract, Kennedy, who earns $340,000 annually, said he is allowed a six-week paid leave for “professional development.”
Kennedy conceded at the Wednesday news conference that “professional development” sounds like he should be going to seminars or writing a book, but he said his contract allows him to use the leave to work out of the office.
Willis said earlier Thursday that it was “not the best way to manage” for Kennedy to be thousands of miles away when the higher education system “was undergoing incredible, drastic change.”
Bye said she was very concerned that the controversy enveloping Kennedy is “a big distraction” on college campuses. And, she said, it “hurts morale” for state employees who have had wage freezes to hear of the significant raises — as much as 26 percent — awarded to board of regents executive staff.
Also earlier Thursday, House Republican Leader Larry Cafero demanded that Kennedy resign. He said Kennedy bungled significant issues and outraged legislators with the high raises for board of regents executive staff.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney also called for the resignation of Michael Meotti, executive vice president of the board, who received a $48,000 increase in salary, which he since has agreed to forgo. Cafero also thinks Meotti’s role in the raises and other issues should be thoroughly reviewed.
“The Board of Regents of Higher Education needs to clean house. The actions of President Robert Kennedy and Executive Vice President Michael Meotti have embarrassed Connecticut’s higher education system and further eroded taxpayer confidence and trust in state institutions,” said McKinney.
The higher education committee leaders did not call for Meotti’s resignation. Bye said she thinks the department needs Meotti’s experience and deep understanding of higher education issues and of the reform under way.
At a news conference Wednesday with Kennedy, Robinson acknowledged Kennedy’s mistakes but appeared to accept his apologies and to be supportive of him.
But by Thursday, as pressure from the governor and legislators grew, Robinson had shifted in tone: “The Board, and I, personally, have been greatly troubled with the actions that have been taken by and the lack of information shared with the Board of Regents by President Kennedy. As I said yesterday, the Board will be reviewing his judgment exercised in these matters, as well as his performance. Based on our findings, we will take the appropriate action.”
Robinson, Kennedy and Melendez could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon after the higher education committee leaders’ news conference.
The Hartford Courant and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Distributed by MCT Information Services.