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OP-ED | UConn’s Alternate Universe

by | Jul 15, 2016 5:30am
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Posted to: Analysis, Education, Jobs, Labor, Opinion, State Budget, Taxes, Transparency

Why do smart people do dumb things? I ask myself that very question every time I do something stupid, which fortunately isn’t that often. But UConn President Susan Herbst, a successful college administrator who holds a Ph.D. in communication theory and research from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, has really taken the concept to new level.

During a period of what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget chief called “permanent fiscal crisis,” Herbst promised — and later backtracked on — a series of substantial raises to top staffers ranging from 3 to 32 percent.

In 2013 and 2014, four executives at UConn signed employment agreements that are now expiring. Under the new deal, Herbst herself would have seen a $29,250 boost to $614,250 a year; Michael Kirk, deputy chief of staff, $145,000 to $160,000; Richard Orr, Herbst’s top lawyer, $250,000 to $275,000; Rachel Rubin, Herbst’s assistant, $240,000 to $255,000. Kirk was not on the list of those giving up raises.

Even without the raises, the list of benefits and bonuses was staggering for any state employee:

Orr, whose salary had increased by $55,000 in a little more than a year, will have to give up a $25,000 performance incentive that he would have been eligible for this year. Orr has also agreed to forgo $15,000 associated with a car allowance that he received in 2015-16.

So Orr, a government employee already making $250,000 a year, was going to get a $25,000 bonus and a $15,000 car allowance? Rubin has agreed to give up a $30,000 bonus for this year, as well as a $15,000 car allowance from last year.

Once the raises and compensation packages saw the light of day and Herbst rescinded them under pressure from lawmakers, it was difficult to find anyone willing to defend them — except for Lawrence McHugh, who chairs UConn’s Board of Trustees.

In an op-ed for the Courant, McHugh acknowledged that he “understand[s] the optics,” but quickly added that “perception is not reality. Essentially, he said a great institution like UConn must pay top dollar to staff itself while competing with the private sector and rival universities.

Perhaps. But I think the question you’d have to ask yourself is what kinds of jobs these folks who would have received the big raises could get on the outside? Is it possible to find a capable lawyer who would work for $250,000 a year but not demand an annual $25,000 bonus and a $15,000 car allowance. And don’t forget, $250,000 as a state employee, with its defined-benefit pensions and lifetime healthcare, is worth a lot more than it is in the private sector, where such benefits are rare.

And I’m not even sure about how much UConn’s executives could make in the private sector. Take university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, for example. Reitz was a reporter for the Associated Press and The Courant when she was hired in 2012 at a little over $65,000 a year (as of 2014 her pay had increased to more than $116,000 in salary and benefits). Does anyone seriously think she was making that at The Courant or the AP? Or that those news media organizations offer anything more than a 401(k)?

No, it’s as if UConn is operating like the fourth branch of government, as Courant columnist Kevin Rennie dubbed it. The UConn establishment is largely exempt from the consequences of the “new economic reality” that has hit the other three branches of government with lay-off notices, budget cuts, and reduced hours this summer at state parks.

Even Connecticut’s much vaunted freedom-of-information laws don’t impact the state’s flagship university the way they do, say, the DMV or the Siting Council. Indeed, in some ways UConn more resembles one of those dreaded quasi-public agencies like the Connecticut Airport Authority or the now-defunct CRRA. In other words, plenty of taxpayer dollars going in without the kind of public accountability you’d expect from a traditional state agency.

Here are some nuggets unearthed by the office of state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano: UConn receives more than $200 million annually in direct taxpayer support with no strings attached; UConn receives billions in taxpayer-financed bond money; UConn is exempt from the State Personnel Act and from general state procurement policies; in 2015 state aid was at an all-time high, while tuition was set to increase the following year by 6.5 percent — three times the rate of inflation.

Even in rescinding three of the four raises, Herbst would not say that she was wrong to bestow them, but instead apologized for the bad optics and sniffed that she did not “wish to place unnecessary strain” on the relationship between UConn and lawmakers in Hartford.

The gravy train is over. Since 1986 tuitions at U.S. colleges have risen nationally at two and a half times the rate of inflation, even into the 1990s when the dotcom boom was pushing college endowments to unheard-of heights.

UConn is a fine institution but officials there need to face reality. Unless the state’s economy experiences a dramatic turnaround, the current path is unsustainable for taxpayers, students and their families.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the authors are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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