UConn’s handling of sabbaticals should prompt deeper review

The Connecticut Auditors of Public Accounts have long enjoyed the respect of every state agency. Two former legislators, one from each party, lead a serious team of professionals. Most agencies act upon the auditors’ findings and recommendations, but not the University of Connecticut.
On Tuesday, the auditors released their findings of an audit of UConn and reported the state’s premier public university continues to ignore 18 of the 28 recommendations from the previous audit, issued in 2021.
The one drawing the most attention is UConn’s failure to administer properly some faculty sabbaticals.
An examination of a sample of 15 of the 327 sabbaticals taken by faculty members during the three fiscal years the auditors examined, 2019-2021, found the administration violated its own rules. A simple one is that faculty members who are granted a sabbatical must return to teaching for the year after their sabbatical ends. A sabbatical is intended to provide an uninterrupted period for a faculty member to research, write, or otherwise enhance their knowledge of their discipline. In theory, their students then benefit when the professor returns to the classroom.
The auditors found four faculty members did not return to the classroom for a year after completing their sabbaticals. The four were paid $289,569 that UConn should have clawed back from them. It did not, and, according to the auditors, has no way to do so. The high rate of mishandling sabbaticals should prompt a deeper review.
The auditors identified the same issue in its previous report. Then, as now, university officials purred their agreement that changes would indeed be made.
The auditors raised a big old who-ha with the finding that two faculty members received their full salaries for their year-long sabbaticals. Under the school’s rules, a semester-long sabbatical includes full pay, one that lasts two semesters is accompanied by half the academic’s salary. One of the two is former UConn President Susan Herbst. She was the head of UConn from 2011 until she left the president’s position in 2019.
Herbst was paid $711,027 for her sabbatical. She then began teaching two classes a year at UConn’s Stamford branch — more than 100 miles from the main campus in Storrs — and this year is expected to be paid $365,000. Herbst’s contract included a generous provision guaranteeing her the highest salary paid as a UConn faculty member, excluding UConn’s medical school, for teaching those two classes. This year that is estimated to be $365,480.
UConn disputes that paying Herbst more than $700,000 for a yearlong sabbatical broke any rules. The school’s trustees approved the deal in Herbst’s contract and the trustees, according to UConn, are free to ignore the rules that apply to all others. Nevertheless, the administration once more pledges to make changes in its oversight of sabbaticals.
The audit confirms what the Wall Street Journal reported in a front-page story on spending and enrollment at select public universities, including UConn, especially UConn. The Journal reported on public universities increasing spending at a significantly greater pace than enrollment grew in the last 20 years.
The Journal study found that UConn’s spending outstripped enrollment growth by a wide margin, with spending up 73%, enrollment 47% .
UConn’s response to the Journal’s inquiry about deficits in its athletic programs was to blame former coach Kevin Ollie, who under Herbst’s leadership was unjustly fired in 2018. After extended litigation, the coach, who brought home a men’s basketball NCAA championship in 2014, prevailed on two claims that required UConn to pay him $15 million. No one at UConn has been held accountable for its atrocious treatment of Ollie and the costs that followed. No one in authority ever wanted to know why the school’s leadership embarked on such a costly and shabby scheme.
Little has changed in the decade that followed. When the administration decided to make cuts in athletic programs, the administration targeted the women’s rowing team. They fought back with an admirable combination of grace and ferocity. Testimony in a federal court hearing suggested the university was cooking the numbers it reported to the federal government on women’s participation in sports. The women’s rowing team was quickly restored before more probing questions could be posed and answered under oath.
UConn athletics having success on the field, but are financials sustainable?

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The auditors perform a vital, unheralded service. They save the public millions of dollars a year and enforce essential rules of trustworthy government. At a time when our democratic institutions are under constant attack, UConn, which often claims it plays central role in the life of the state, ought not to fail repeated audits followed by years of shrugs.
There is a beginning to a solution. Allow each auditor to appoint a term-limited member of the board of trustees with authority to engage in continuous audits of the university’s administration. The self-perpetuating bureaucracy at UConn will squawk but it will become harder for it to ignore audits.
Kevin F. Rennie of South Windsor is a lawyer and a former Republican state senator and representative.

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