When the state’s higher education chairman resigned abruptly three weeks ago, few knew the reason why.
Now, it turns out that Lewis Robinson was asked to step down by the governor’s chief of staff as chairman of the embattled Board of Regents for Higher Education.
The board has been involved in controveries for the past two years involving pay raises without board approval and extensive vacation for a former president, leading to the resignations of several high-profile leaders.
Republicans are now calling for Malloy to back off and allow the professionals to run the system, which includes the four-campus Connecticut State University system and the state’s community colleges.
Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, said Thursday that Robinson was asked to step aside only as chairman.
“He was welcome to stay as a member of the board because he had contributed to the board in its first couple of years in a positive manner,’’ Ojakian said in an interview. “He was never asked to leave the board. He chose, for his own reasons, not to remain on the board.’’
The various controversies prompted the legislature to pass a bipartisan bill that would require the system’s president to be appointed by the board — reducing the role of the governor. Ojakian said that it was the administration that offered the bill, but lawmakers questioned that. The board chairman, unlike the president, is still appointed by the governor.
The bill was related directly to the case of Robert Kennedy, the high-profile president who left the board after controversies about salaries and perks that made front-page headlines. Kennedy was Malloy’s handpicked choice for the presidency, and Malloy personally introduced him at the announcement in 2011 as the interim president at a salary of $340,000 per year, plus a $25,000 performance-based bonus. That contract represented a jump in pay for Kennedy, who had been earning about $220,000 per year as president of the University of Maine.
With the system in turmoil for years, House Republican leader Larry Cafero says that Malloy should reduce his role in the higher education system.
“I would suggest the governor, if in fact he wants to abide by the legislation, should sort of mind his own business for now,’’ Cafero said in an interview. “My recommendation would be: take a break. Let’s see how they act on their own. Take a back seat. Stop putting personnel over there in the press department. Butt out. Stay out.’’
One of Malloy’s trusted press aides, Colleen Flanagan Johnson, worked for the education system for less than two years at a six-figure salary before recently accepting a healthcare job in the private sector in Avon. Another of Malloy’s press aides, Juliet Manalan, is now leaving his office to work in the same office where Flanagan had worked.
But Ojakian said the governor’s office played no role at all in the hiring of the two press aides.
“This office in no way has influenced who the board has decided to employ as personnel,’’ he said. “Colleen sought a position that was open, and she got a position. Similarly, when Colleen’s position was open, Juliet decided to apply for that. Nobody from this office, once again, influenced that process. We have in no way influenced any hiring at the board.’’
He added, “We have not exerted any influence or had any interaction on personnel that affects the [higher education] administration. Have we had policy conversations with the new president? Absolutely. … We are not running any higher education system.’’
But Cafero said that Malloy needs to accept responsibility for the problems at the board because he was involved in making high-level appointments.
“He’s the one who hired President Kennedy,’’ Cafero said. “It was because of the contract that the governor negotiated with President Kennedy that caused the controversy and allowed President Kennedy to take nine-plus weeks in Montana or Minnesota or wherever the heck he was.’’
Last summer, Kennedy had been working at his home in Minnesota rather than in Connecticut under his interpretation of “paid professional leave’’ that was in his contract.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who is seeking his party’s nomination to run for governor against Malloy, said the reasons for Robinson’s departure should have been announced three weeks ago.
“At the time he resigned, Governor Malloy should have come forward and said, ‘I asked him,’ ‘’ McKinney said Thursday. “There seems to be an attempt to scapegoat others instead of taking responsibility. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there, and I think the governor and the governor’s office should be more forthcoming and honest with people and stop sending mixed messages. You can’t have it both ways. They’re clearly not hands off. … The governor tried to hide the fact that he asked him to resign. One would have to assume that they couldn’t control Mr. Robinson.’’
Robinson had been criticized for having little background in higher education. Previously, he worked for 26 years for Hartford-based Travelers before retiring as general counsel for Travelers Property Casualty. At the time of his appointment, Robinson said that he believed his background as a board member of the Capital Community College Foundation and chairman of the board for the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving would help him oversee the education board.
Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Senate Republican on the education committee, said the administration has not been “hands off’’ at all.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth when it began,’’ Boucher said. “It’s unfortunate. It has been one thing after another. Now that things have not gone well, they want to distance themselves from it. They’ve basically thrown this chairman of the board under the bus.’’