As colleges face more external pressures, and leadership contracts become corporatized, presidents on the outs are getting paid large sums to leave — including the leader of Colorado State University’s main campus, who is getting over $1.5 million to resign two years early.
Joyce McConnell will leave her post in Fort Collins at the end of the month, the university announced last week. She joins several other public-college leaders who have gotten big payouts in the past year, including Mark R. Kennedy, who got $1.3 million to leave the University of Colorado system in July after just two years, and Harlan M. Sands, who got nearly $1 million to leave Cleveland State University in April despite receiving a five-year contract extension last year.
McConnell will depart on June 30, a day shy of her three-year anniversary at Colorado State — a period when she guided the university through the Covid-19 pandemic, faced criticism from students for her handling of a racist incident, and dealt with an outside investigation into the university’s athletics department following several investigations by The Coloradoan.
The decision came “after much deliberation” between McConnell and the Colorado State system’s Board of Governors, a joint statement said. The statement also described her exit as a mutual decision to “part ways.”
Though McConnell and Kennedy both had shorter-than-planned tenures as top higher-ed leaders in Colorado, the reason for Kennedy’s exit was clearer. The Board of Regents, which governs the University of Colorado system, was for the first time in 40 years controlled by Democrats after the 2020 election. Kennedy, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, had been narrowly appointed in 2019 when Republican regents held a 5-to-4 majority. Kennedy had faced resistance from students and others for his voting record on LGBTQ issues and for, they felt, not taking a strong enough stance on racial justice.
“The Board of Regents has a new makeup this year, which has led to changes in its focus and philosophy,” Kennedy said in a prepared statement at the time.
At Colorado State, meanwhile, the situation isn’t as straightforward, though the statement from McConnell and the Board of Governors acknowledges “challenging and unprecedented times.” Faculty leaders contacted by The Chronicle either declined to comment or didn’t respond. McConnell said in a statement to the campus community that to “serve as the 15th and first woman president of Colorado State University is the highest accomplishment of my career in higher education.”
In an investigation in 2020, The Coloradoan spoke to more than 20 current and former Colorado State football players and athletic-department staff who witnessed several instances of racial insensitivity and abuse within the department. The investigation would lead McConnell to pause all football activities at the time.
A separate investigation by The Coloradoan found football coaches had told players during the fall-2020 season not to report Covid-19 symptoms or quarantine, or face less playing time.
The law firm Husch Blackwell investigated the athletics department following the reports and found that university leaders didn’t know about the issues within athletics, The Coloradoan reported. The inquiry, however, did lead to three recommendations for the department to improve its racial sensitivity.
Rick Miranda, chief academic officer for the Colorado State system, wasnamed interim president on June 10. The board will conduct a national search for the next president, according to a news release.
In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for universities and their presidents to part ways with settlement agreements, said Richard A. Wueste, an executive-search consultant for AGB Search and a former president of Adams State University, in Colorado.
Private colleges have historically had the ability to offer larger “golden parachute” payouts for presidents because those institutions tend to have a larger pool of resources to tap and face less scrutiny from lawmakers and others. But public colleges, too, have been signing six- and seven-figure agreements. One of the largest payouts went to Steven Leath, who got $4.5 million in 2019 to leave Auburn University.
Contracts, especially at the highest levels, have become more corporate over the past 20 years, Wueste said, with lawyers on both sides negotiating the clauses contained within them. “Virtually no president that has a brain is going to enter into a situation where they don’t have a contract” that protects them in case they are forced to part ways with a college, Wueste said.
In many contracts, the buyout and cause clauses determine what action a college’s board might take. To be fired for cause, college leaders would be entitled to some form of due process, which can take months — and can move forward only if specific violations outlined in the contract take place, Wueste said. A buyout can be much quicker, and accounts for when a board’s political composition changes, the state legislature gets involved, or if a president does something the board disagrees with but isn’t outlined as a firable offense in the contract.
Colleges are not at the point where security will come to a president’s office and give them 15 minutes to pack up their belongings and leave, Wueste said. Instead, “a lot of people try to help people move ahead” in situations like these.
“But we’re finding more and more that, when it comes time to make an employment agreement, especially at the highest levels, these are going to be strictly contractual,” he said. “And the settlement is going to be driven by what are the terms of the contract, and how far does somebody want to step outside those terms? And what are they willing to pay to accomplish it?”
As part of the settlement, the Board of Governors, the Colorado State system’s chancellor, and McConnell signed a mutual nondisparagement agreement “not to make or disseminate any statement that disparages the other, or reflects negatively upon, McConnell, the Board,” or others within the university and Colorado State system. They also agreed not to pursue legal action against one another.