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Emails Offer Clues Behind UConn President’s Departure

Thomas Katsouleas
Frankie Graziano
/
Connecticut Public Radio
Tom Katsouleas served as president of UConn for nearly two years.

Before his surprise resignation in May, ex-University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas butted heads with the public university's governing board on a handful of issues, including tuition hikes and plans for graduation, emails show.

Katsouleas stepped down as president on June 30 after serving in the role for close to two years.

While trustees offered little explanation for the move, emails and text messages obtained by Connecticut Public reveal the extent of the divide between Katsouleas and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

That tension arose early in Katsouleas’ tenure when fundraising slowed for a new scholarship program that the president crafted and announced in October 2019 during his inaugural address after becoming the school’s 16th president.

Called the Connecticut Commitment, families in Connecticut with a household income below $50,000 per year would be offered free tuition beginning the following school year. But four months later, board of trustees Chairperson Daniel Toscano was beginning to get anxious about paying for the program.

The initiative came with a $1 million price tag for the first year, which was higher than he remembered being told, and he was just hearing that a large chunk of a major donation for the scholarships now came with restrictions on how much could be spent in the first year.

According to his email correspondence with the university president, the school was short roughly $400,000 as the date approached for UConn to announce which students had been accepted — and what financial aid would be available to them.

“I felt comfortable we could raise that before acceptance went out next month, particularly since we received the ($1 million) gift from Synchrony, which I thought I was told was fully spendable,” Toscano wrote. “Now I am hearing it is only 50% spendable. Let’s get this figured out asap so we can get the program off to a strong start and not have any board mishaps.”

The next month the school awarded scholarships to 260 incoming freshmen. But pressure continued to mount, as the school now needed to raise funds to pay for this cohort’s sophomore year, as well as next year’s freshmen who qualified.

Discussing the situation this week, the board chairman said the Connecticut Commitment was not well thought out.

“It was ambitious, but it was driving towards something that was really important,” said Toscano. “I think he got ahead of himself a little bit, and his ambition to get it going. And, you know, we didn’t have the funding for it, ultimately, which was the number one concern we had going into it was making sure we had it funded. And so, when it came up short, you know, then you’re put in a bad position of what do you do now?”

Shortly after those acceptance letters went out, the board of trustees met privately to evaluate Katsouleas and discuss whether to award him his annual $50,000 performance bonus his contract requires unless he “has failed substantially to meet the goals and objectives” determined by the board.

The state’s open records laws largely shield the public release of evaluations of university employees without their permission. Katsouleas did not respond to requests for permission for the public university to release his evaluations.

Email records between the president and the board chair, however, do show that after reviewing the board’s feedback, Katsouleas decided to forgo his bonus.

“I appreciate the feedback and take it seriously. I am fully committed to working with you to meet and exceed the expectation of the board,” he emailed Toscano on the morning of July 27 and asked to talk to him about the evaluation.

“Per our conversations, in light of the financial hardship experienced around the state as well as at UConn, I wish to not receive the bonus specified in my contract this year. Respectfully, if the board would like to consider redirecting any bonus amount to need-based financial aid for Connecticut students, I think that would be a better use of the funds,” he wrote in a separate email that same morning.

This was hardly the end of the tension between the two.

There was also disagreement over graduation ceremonies -- how many days they should be held over and whether masks should be required.

“This seems like putting the cart before the horse. ... Announcing that we are hosting (graduation) events over 7 days in the absence of that feedback was not what we discussed,” said Toscano.

Mandating masks turned up the temperature even more.

“We are going to be the ones who have complaining parents and get punched in the nose for having now tighter guidelines than the state. … When people say ‘I can go to a Yard Goats game and not wear a mask, but when I go to a UConn event with my 3 people in a pod at The Rent [stadium], I have to wear a $%& mask??’ There won’t be an acceptable answer,” he e-mailed Katsouleas a week before graduation.

The president’s team agreed to hold off announcing graduation over so many days but said the mask mandate was the decision of public health experts.

Toscano responded to disagree: “Don’t you think that, given all the work done to separate people at our ceremonies, we don’t have ‘decreased ability to maintain physical distance,’? I feel like we spent a million dollars to achieve that.”

And then, on the eve of the board’s Financial Affairs Committee meeting to consider tuition — and Katsouleas’ proposal to scale back previously adopted tuition increases from a $625 hike for in-state students to $312 — the president submitted his resignation letter.

The board chairman said Katsouleas once again put trustees in a difficult spot on how to pay for something.

“I think that got a little bit ahead of the discussions with the board and understanding — fully understanding — the financial implications,” he said during an interview.

Around that same time, the school’s fiscal picture — and the impact the pandemic had on student enrollment and revenue — began to improve drastically. An email from the chief financial officer showed that more students than anticipated signed up to live and eat on campus, cutting the anticipated $65 million deficit nearly in half.

“I would never show this. It is probably the most positive scenario,” Toscano wrote the president of the budget projections on UConn’s $1.6 billion annual operating budget.

But the most contentious correspondence between the two came after Katsouleas provided his resignation letter to send to the UConn faculty and staff.

"The second paragraph is wholly unacceptable and inconsistent with our agreed path. It must be struck completely and immediately… It is not in your best interests nor the best interests of UConn to have language out there of the type you proposed,” Toscano wrote. “I do not want to consider whether this was deliberate, so I will assume it was an oversight if I hear from you immediately that it is being removed. In the absence of that, I will be forced to reconsider the details of our path. Let’s not have that.”

The paragraph was ultimately removed from his resignation announcement, and UConn declined CT Public’s request to release it, saying it is not subject to open records laws because it was a draft. It is also unclear what agreed-upon path the chairman was talking about since there is no written separation agreement.

Last month, Katsouleas became among the highest-paid faculty at the university, making $336,000 a year.

Katsouleas has been granted permission to not teach any courses during the upcoming semester, however. A spokesman for the university said he will spend that time setting up his lab space, doing research, applying for grants and mentoring students. He is expected to have a normal teaching load in the spring.