PELTO: "Why yes Virginia, things can always get worse: Board of Regents Hire Phil Austin"

Crosspost from Jon Pelto's Wait What?

When I read the Courant news update, I started to laugh....but it soon turned into hysterical howling;

The Courant wrote;

"At an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, the board of regents sought to restore its image and some order, voting to hire former University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin on an interim basis and appointing a committee to research the issues that led to Kennedy's resignation."

As expected, the ill-fated merger of the Connecticut State University System and the Connecticut Community and Technical College System was crashing and burning.

Robert Kennedy, the President of the Board of Regents, had resigned in disgrace.

Michael Meotti, the Executive Vice President, was about to follow Kennedy out the door.

Together, they (and others still employed), had allocated or benefited from $300,000 in illegal pay raises, despite a state law making it absolutely and totally clear that only the Board of Regents has the authority to set compensation.

So the Board of Regents stepped up to save the day....and they;

(1)   Hire former University of Connecticut President Phil Austin


(2)   Set up a committee to "research the issues that lead to Kennedy's resignation."

And politicians wonder why the people of the United States have lost faith in their government?

There's more below the fold
In the coming days, we'll have the opportunity to explore some of these issues in greater details, but here is something to keep in mind as you read the various news accounts.

Having grown up around the University of Connecticut, and having served as its State Representative for a decade, I consider myself to be one of UConn's strongest supporters and biggest critics.  As a legislator, I led the effort to pass the landmark Higher Education Flexibility Legislation.  I designed and managed the public relations campaign that helped pass the UConn 2000 program.  And as Co-Chairman of the Governor's Commission to investigate the problems with UConn 2000, my commission members and I spent hundreds of hours, during 2005, looking into the disaster associated with how UConn implemented the program during its first ten years.

With that background I read the prepared statement that Governor Malloy released following the decision to hire Phil Austin to "repair the image" of the Board of Regents.

Governor Malloy said;

"Dr. Austin is an outstanding choice by the Board of Regents..."His reputation is beyond reproach... [He] was instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn programs..."

I too know that Phil Austin's role was, "instrumental in overseeing the implementation" of UConn 2000.  That was exactly the problem.

As the Governor's Commission documented;

At one point there were 5,000 students living in dormitories that did not remotely meet fire code.  In fact, students were actually allowed to move into the dorms, despite the fact that those buildings had not even been properly inspected.

The fire code issues were so severe that for months and months in 2005-2006, UConn fire fighters were stationed in and around dorms, 24 hours a day, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime costs.

The most conservative estimates are that it cost taxpayers $60-$80 million dollars or more to fix the problems that occurred under Mr. Austin's watch.

In addition, nearly every building that UConn built from 1995 to 2005 was over budget, and in a number of cases, costs were assigned to other building projects in an attempt to cover up the costs overruns.

In one case, my Commission discovered that $6 million dollar was spent to renovate the locker rooms and coach's offices in basement of Gampel Pavilion.  Rather then put the project out to bid, the construction and the costs were assigned to the new School of Business that was being built across the street.

Just as incredible was that fact that, although the UConn Board of Trustees was assured on multiple occasions that the Gampel project was being funded with private dollars, the money was never raised, and the project was actually paid for with student fees.  When the situation became public, UConn called the money a 10 year, no interest loan, and promised that the money would be repaid to the operating fund.

Meanwhile, a project to renovate Mr. Austin's Presidential Residence was scheduled to cost $280,000.  When completed the cost was over $1.2 million including cost overruns, floor to ceiling mirrors in one of the bedrooms and a new bathroom with an oversized jacuzzi.

And when Mr. Austin's tenure as President came to an end, but his new condo in Farmington wasn't ready, he was allowed to stay in the Presidential Residence, while the incoming President, Mr. Hogan, moved into a nearby private $1 million dollar home that the University rented from one of its biggest donors.

During the Commission's work in the summer of 2005, I regularly updated both Nancy Wyman and Mark Ojakian, who at the time served as the State and Deputy State Comptroller.

Now, as Lt. Governor and as the Governor's Chief of Staff, I'm sure they would agree, Phil Austin was, "instrumental in overseeing implementation of the UConn 2000."  That was the problem.

But even putting aside all the UConn 2000 issues, the selection of Phil Austin as the interim President of the Board of Regents is beyond belief.

At the very core of the problems facing the Board of Regents was that neither Robert Kennedy nor Michael Meotti had any meaningful understanding or experience with community colleges, arguably the most vital part of our public system of higher education.

The selection of a new leader was the moment that their oversight could have been addressed.

Instead the Board of Regents and Governor Malloy choose someone who is even less positioned to understand and support Connecticut's Community Colleges.

Phil Austin's higher education administrative experience is having served as President of Colorado State University, the Chancellor of The University of Alabama System and the President of the University of Connecticut.

Between the problems at UConn and his lack of experience with community colleges, it is hard to imagine that the Board of Regents could have made a worse choice when it comes to leading Connecticut's State Universities and Community Colleges.

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