Former University of Connecticut President Philip Austin was named Friday as the interim president of the Board of Regents that oversees the state’s four universities and community colleges. He agreed to step into the role vacated by Robert Kennedy, who resigned under fire after approving more than $260,000 in raises for the higher education agency’s top executives.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who recruited Kennedy, praised the Board of Regents for choosing Austin as the interim.
“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,“ Malloy said. “He’s also the right person to make sure the reforms that have started to be implemented continue.”
Austin, who served for more than 11 years as president of the University of Connecticut, also served as the interim president during the transition between Michael Hogan and its current president, Susan Herbst.
Lewis Robinson, chairman of the Board of Regents, announced the pick after the board spent more than a half hour in executive session discussing its options.
“Dr. Austin is an outstanding educator and leader of educational institutions,” Robinson told reporters after the meeting adjourned. “He served as the 13th president of the University of Connecticut with distinction and he was asked to come back as interim president in their search for their president, Dr. Herbst, and did a fine job.”
Robinson said Austin’s experience made him a good choice as the Board of Regents moved quickly to find a permanent replacement for Kennedy. Robinson said he had a conversation with the governor’s office Thursday and Austin’s name “came up.”
Austin’s pay has yet to be worked out, he said. Malloy will have to appoint him before he starts his job.
Robinson said the board may take five or six months to choose a new permanent president.
“In order to get the top quality leader that’s going to propel us into the 21st century so we have graduates equipped to compete in a global economy, we need a first-rate person,” he said.
The 15-member board voted unanimously to accept Kennedy’s resignation before it nearly unanimously voted to recommend Austin.
One member, Alex Tettey, Jr., chairman of the board’s Student Advisory Committee, abstained from the vote. Tettey said he had respect for every member of the board, but had only heard Austin’s name mentioned for the first time about an hour before the vote. Without being able to research the candidate for himself, Tettey said he didn’t want to cast a vote one way or another.
“I didn’t feel it was enough time,” he said, adding that he may have to explain his vote to other students. “A lot of students around the state — their confidence is a little shaky in the board.”
Some of that discontent was evident while the board was in executive session. Chris D’Amore, a Manchester Community College student, spoke with reporters about his frustration with the raises and the staff who received them.
He said most state employees are under a pay freeze and that it was wrong for Board of Regents’ staff to accept raises that weren’t even approved by the board. D’Amore said everyone who received a raise should pay back whatever extra money they received and ideally resign.
Robinson said Executive Vice President Michael Meotti has agreed to pay back his raise and the others have had theirs frozen. Those raises will be studied, he said, noting that some raises were approved by the board.
One of the actions taken by the Board of Regents on Friday was to establish an administrative committee to look into the raises and other personnel issues. Robinson said he still had confidence in the board’s staff unless or until the that committee came back with evidence to the contrary.
“We’re not going to operate at the board on innuendo with regard to other people who are not involved with what’s transpired this morning,” Robinson said.