CHRIS POWELL: Working at UConn is great but getting fired is better

Published on Monday, 24 January 2022 19:38

Another spectacular embarrassment for the University of Connecticut, and thus for the state itself, exploded last week -- the $11 million wrongful termination award for former men's basketball coach Kevin Ollie. It was compounded because there is no one really in charge at the university these days.

University President Thomas Katsouleas resigned last June after less than two years on the job, bailing out in a golden parachute [Editor’s note: Technically a golden parachute is part of a severance package for an executive who is fired.] to a tenured UConn professorship with a $330,000 salary. His temporary successor, UConn Health CEO Andrew Agwunobi, who held on to his medical position even as he became interim president of the whole university, announced Jan. 14 that he is leaving to run a subsidiary of health insurer Humana.

UConn's vice president for research, Radenka Maric, had barely been lined up as the university's second interim president of the year when the award to Ollie was announced.

Maric's first task as president may be to decide where that $11 million is to come from, since the arbiter ordered it paid fast. UConn's athletic department had just reported a $47 million deficit.

But after Maric finds the $11 million, she will be obliged to inquire into the Ollie disaster, because it was not just the fluke or the bad luck suggested by the university's statement, which, remarkably, was anonymous, unattributed to any UConn official. The statement called the arbiter's decision "nonsensical" and complained that it "seriously impedes the university's ability to manage its athletics program."

Of course Maric will do nothing about the disaster, because it is actually the result of the university's own mistaken policies and misjudgments.

First, UConn's contract with Ollie allowed his dismissal only for "just cause." Anyone being paid $2.8 million per year in taxpayer money, as Ollie was, should be subject to dismissal simply for management's loss of confidence.

Second, UConn allows its coaches to be members of the professors union, whose contract bestows additional job guarantees. While the university is sore that the arbiter concluded that the union contract superseded parts of Ollie's personal contract, the university had allowed an employee paid $2.8 million per year to be part of the union.

That is, UConn had already compromised itself.

Third, nearly everyone who follows UConn basketball sensed that Ollie was fired four years ago not just because of a few national collegiate rule violations and some dissembling about them but because, despite having already taken his team to a national championship, he had just presided over two losing seasons. A coach whose team had done better recently would not have been punished so severely. He would have been reprimanded short of dismissal, as his predecessor, Jim Calhoun, had been after rules violations. But UConn was in a hurry and fired Ollie long before the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued its formal findings about him.

Fourth, in the four years since Ollie's firing the university probably could have negotiated a financial settlement with him well short of $11 million, out of decency if not strategy. But UConn's incompetence was crowned by arrogance.

And fifth, UConn's come-and-go presidents aren't the only ones who have been presiding over the Ollie case. The university has a Board of Trustees that either has been informed about developments in the case or hasn't been and hasn't cared to be. Somehow the board has gotten away with hiring Katsouleas as president only to discover that they couldn't stand each other and with failing to condition the professorial sinecure in his contract on any length of service as president.

Governor Lamont appoints the trustees but has been indifferent to their performance. So under Lamont working at UConn is good but getting fired is even better.

Yes, UConn is not the only part of state government that always gives the store away, but even so this is a scandal that screams for investigation by the General Assembly.

Since the legislature investigates nothing and since UConn long has been exempt from scrutiny generally, the state will be lucky if even one journalist questions the governor and his challengers about the scandal during the election campaign ahead.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Monday, 24 January 2022 19:38. Updated: Monday, 24 January 2022 19:41.