HARTFORD -- A day before starting his job as president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, Gregory W. Gray and his wife, Donna, had his office in the system's Tudor revival-style headquarters on Woodland Street unpacked and decorated in an afternoon -- down to pictures of his grandkids and a framed shot of George W. Bush shaking Gray's hand at a 2007 Miami college commencement.
They've had practice.
Over the span of a 35-year career in higher education, Gray has held more than a dozen positions in Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami and Riverside, Calif.
"I go to retirement events quite often and see people who have worked in the same place for 40 years. I have tremendous respect for that, but people like me take a different route," Gray said.
His route provides an opportunity to appreciate differences in the way things get done. That may come in handy as he attempts to build a new higher education system from scratch, and to mend its bruised reputation.
Gray, 64, was selected in May to become the second permanent president for the 2-year-old "ConnSCU" system, a forced marriage of the state's 12 community colleges, four state universities and online college -- all of the state's public higher education institutions except the University of Connecticut.
An alignment championed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and approved by the General Assembly to save money, the new system has had one setback after another. Robert A. Kennedy, handpicked by Malloy as the system's first president, resigned last October after it was discovered he handed out $260,000 in unauthorized raises to top staff at the same time others in state government were living under a wage freeze. In addition, $5 million in savings realized last year by merging the central offices of the state universities and community college evaporated under the weight of a state deficit, so that the money could not -- as had been promised -- be passed down to campuses in the form of 47 new teaching positions.
Then a month after Gray took office July 1 and began laying out a game plan in consultation with Lewis Robinson, chairman of the board of regents, Robinson abruptly resigned, calling into question the ability of the new system to stabilize, let alone strengthen.
Gray, though surprised by Robinson's decision, seemed undeterred.
"Personally, I am disappointed to lose his leadership," Gray said, "but I understand and respect his decision, and with all good organizations, we have a succession plan built into our system."
Yvette Melendez, the board vice chairwoman, will take Robinson's place, at least for the time being.
Gray, who in his new job earns $380,000 a year ($30,000 less than Kennedy), said he has a 23-item list of objectives along with three overarching goals.
"First, I have to appreciate what has happened in this system over the past 18 months and need to restore trust and integrity to the system," he said.
He has pledged that everything he does will be transparent and every expenditure will be defendable.
Second, Gray said he has a new system infrastructure to build. The community colleges, state universities and Charter Oak State College hierarchy were merged before anyone decided whose policies and procedures to follow. While some positions were eliminated, new ones were created that don't have job descriptions. At least five major central office positions remain vacant.
Third, Gray, who said he is a business guy at heart, plans to look for efficiencies, reduce expense and increase revenues in a way that it is not piled on the backs of students.
Most of the 95,000 students in the new system face a 5 percent tuition hike this fall.
"I have already spoken with some legislators about this ... I have spoken to the governor about this," Gray said. "We can't shut students out because they can't afford it."
The best way to increase revenue without raising tuition, he said, is to increase enrollment in the system, which is currently going down. Budgets are so tight that Anita Gliniecki, president of Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, said her bottom line is one major snowstorm or busted boiler away from being in the red. It has her worried.
Gray said he will fight for funding, but in the end, his presidents have to run their colleges in the black.
"In California, I cut $16.5 million from the budget. It's doable," he said.
James Mazur, a psychology professor at Southern Connecticut State University, said his hope is that Gray will keep separate roles for the community colleges and the state universities. That division, Mazur said, includes preserving the ability of state university professors to do research as well as teach.
Gray said the new organization can work as one -- without its parts losing their identity. He grew up in the State University of New York system, which has 32 community colleges, 12 arts and sciences colleges and four research institutions.
"They all maintain their autonomy," he said.
Gray said he sees a distinct mission for all 17 Connecticut campuses and insists there are no plans to close or merge them.
"But I do think some will be re-energized and refocused," he said.
Gray wants the community colleges to take on a more aggressive workforce-development mission by expanding a manufacturing technology program that exists now on a few campuses, including Housatonic. He wants the four universities to become more distinct by building on their strengths. At Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, for example, that would be the arts, said Gray. At Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, emphasis would be on allied health and business.
Gray also wants to focus more on Charter Oak, the online degree program. He sees it as an untapped way to increase access to higher education for Connecticut residents and to unite the system through online offerings.
"We have an excellent opportunity to mold this system in a way that has never been done before," Gray said, "and to get input on the plan from various stakeholders."
Another thing that professors at the state universities want Gray to do is put them on equal fiscal footing with UConn.
James Russell, an Eastern Connecticut State University professor and spokesman for a group of professors who will meet this month with Gray, said UConn students get more funding and state support than students in ConnSCU get. Russell called that unfair.
Gray said he has heard that, but said the state has to know that its economic development is tied to the success of its state universities and community colleges. If they don't know, he said he will deliver the message.
"My job is to be a cheerleader," he said. "It's why I am here."