Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who handpicked Robert Kennedy of Maine to lead the state’s new Board of Regents for higher education, is praising former UConn president Philip Austin as he replaces Kennedy. Kennedy abruptly stepped down Friday amid controversies over large pay raises to 21 staff members and after officials learned that he had been working remotely for six weeks this summer at his vacation home in Minnesota.
The board, moving quickly in an emergency meeting, recommended that Austin should serve as the interim president. Kennedy was being paid $340,000 per year under a five-year contract until he ran into a buzzsaw of controversy this week as both Democratic and Republican legislators called for his resignation.
“Dr. Austin is an outstanding choice by the Board of Regents. His reputation is beyond reproach, and he will bring much needed stability to the Board of Regents central office the first day he walks in the door. He’s also the right person to make sure the reforms that have started to be implemented continue,” Malloy said in a statement.
“He has substantial higher education experience and is well-known in Connecticut for the leadership and vision he executed during his eleven-year tenure as President of the University of Connecticut. He was instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn programs, and most recently served with the leadership of the UConn Health Center during a period of transition.”
But Austin came under strong criticism in April 2006 when the state House of Representatives voted 145 – 0 for increased oversight in the UConn 2000 construction program, citing shoddy workmanship, mismanagement and cost overruns amid revelations of building and fire-code violations at student dormitories. At the peak of the controversy over the fire-code violations, firefighters were assigned to the two-year-old Charter Oak Suites dormitory for 24-hour monitoring.
The student newspaper, The Daily Campus, called for Austin’s resignation in September 2005, saying he should have done more to prevent and correct the widespread code violations.
The governor’s commission at the time, which was co-chaired by Democrat Jonathan Pelto, had called for a special committee to actively manage the day-to-day construction at UConn, but the legislature decided that a new, seven-member oversight committee would simply monitor the work.
Several House members said on the floor that they were dumbfounded at the depth and the breadth of the construction problems on the Storrs campus.
“UConn’s finest and brightest were either asleep at the job or buried their heads in the sand,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel, a Griswold Democrat who described the situation as “an oversight meltdown” that needed to be corrected. “They have squandered the taxpayers’ money.”
Then-State Rep. Christopher Caruso, a Democrat who now works for the Malloy administration in Bridgeport, publicly called for Austin’s resignation as he had served as the university’s top official throughout the UConn 2000 construction. The university’s trustees, however, continued to back Austin. During the behind-the-scenes squabbling over the bill in 2006, Caruso threatened to call for a resolution of the House for Austin and the board of trustees to resign. But he decided hours later not to call for the resolutions.
“I think we have to be a stronger watchdog on how this money is being spent and how it’s being allocated and who is in charge,” Caruso said at the time. “My hope is this is a wake-up call for all of us. Thank God no students were hurt in those dormitories. … If there were, we would (be) discussing it differently today.”
On Friday, Malloy said he was pleased with Malloy’s leadership at UConn, saying it would be translated to the new board of regents that oversees the community colleges and the four-campus state university system. The board, however, has no oversight over UConn.
“It’s worth noting that he led UConn at a time when it was undergoing a period of unprecedented academic growth and transformation, significantly growing the academic size and strength of the student body and leading the school to be consistently ranked as a top public university in New England. Similar transformation efforts are underway at the Board of Regents, and Dr. Austin’s experience will be invaluable,” Malloy said. “It is on the strength of our state’s education system that we will build a skilled workforce, ensure that Connecticut is internationally recognized for the capabilities of its higher education institutions, and attract high-quality employers that will grow good-paying jobs with good benefits here at home.
“I’m confident Dr. Austin will work closely with each of the Board’s members, legislative leaders, and the faculty, staff and students at each of the schools so that credibility can be restored to the central office and a unified vision for the schools reinvigorated.
“Upon receiving formal notification from the Board on their recommendation, I intend to appoint him to serve in this role.”
State Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who has criticized the Malloy administration at times, said that Austin was a solid pick.
“I think Phil Austin, on a temporary basis, is a good choice,” Roraback told Capitol Watch on Friday evening. “He’s familiar with the higher education landscape, and he’s a skilled administrator.”
But Roraback was scratching his head over Kennedy’s decision to spend six weeks this summer at his home in Minnesota under a section in his contract regarding professional development.
“It’s hard to square a full-throated commitment to building a new system with being absent from the state for a six-week period of time,” Roraback said of Kennedy. “When I think of professional development, I think of taking a course at Columbia or Harvard.’’