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Sweet deal at Morgan

The Baltimore Sun

Under an employment contract he fought to keep out of the public eye, outgoing Morgan State University President Earl S. Richardson could become a $300,000-a-year president emeritus with minimal teaching duties when he steps down at the end of the next year.

The contract also protects the veteran state employee's post-presidential benefits even if Richardson were to be fired for incompetence or misconduct - a shelter from accountability that is unusual for public-college presidents in Maryland and around the country, experts say.

Richardson, 65, drew attention to his $389,000-a-year salary and contract last month when he refused to release the document - considered a public record under Maryland law - to one of his most outspoken critics in the General Assembly. On the same day that Del. Galen R. Clagett, a Frederick County Democrat, sued over the dispute, Richardson finally relented, saying in a recent letter that he was releasing the documents "after much consultation with my legal counsel."

Clagett is investigating Richardson's leadership in the wake of a legislative audit that uncovered numerous financial irregularities at Morgan. The lawmaker said he intends to use Annapolis hearings as an opportunity to grill Morgan's governing Board of Regents about Richardson's employment terms.

"His salary has darn near doubled ... on the basis of merit pay" since the contract was signed in 1999, Clagett said. "If he's got problems managing his operations, why is the board giving him merit awards? I'm going to ask questions."

Martin R. Resnick, vice chairman of Morgan's board, said Richardson will receive a merit pay increase this year, and he defended the president's salary and contract as being in line with those of his peers.

"If you consider all the things he has done and accomplished, you would think his salary is inexpensive," said Resnick, who heads the committee that evaluates Richardson's performance each year. "He's not overpaid."

Earlier this year, state auditors found that Morgan made up to $2.4 million in "questionable" and duplicate payments to a prominent contracting company and overpaid two employees a total of $121,400. In response, Clagett's committee pushed to withhold millions of dollars in funding to the Baltimore university and demanded proof of campus procurement reform.

Morgan officials have repeatedly said that Richardson was unaware of the building contract problems and that the school has taken steps to ensure that they do not recur. In refusing to release his contract, Richardson implied that Clagett might have "discriminatory or retaliatory" motives in his continued investigation, an accusation that the lawmaker dismisses.

Richardson is not the only Maryland public college president guaranteed a faculty job with at least 80 percent of presidential salary upon resigning. The heads of the University of Maryland, College Park and Salisbury University - hired in 1998 and 2000, respectively - have similar provisions in their employment agreements.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, says those types of deals are no longer made because they lead to excessive compensation for former presidents. The state university system's governing board - which does not oversee Morgan - feels that presidents who return to their professorial posts should have "salaries commensurate with their role ... as a faculty member," Kirwan said.

Richardson earns more than most Maryland college presidents but less than Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County ($420,000); David J. Ramsay of the University of Maryland, Baltimore ($589,000); C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. of College Park ($465,000); and Kirwan ($490,000).

As for contract provisions that protect Richardson's faculty job even if he were to be fired from his president's post for "moral turpitude" or "willful neglect of duty," that is a unusual liberty granted by Morgan's board, said Richard Skinner, senior vice president at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

"I've never seen one of those," Skinner said. "Generally speaking, [termination] for cause is a fairly serious matter."

Among the University System of Maryland's 13 academic campuses, outgoing presidents can return to the faculty only if they have completed their presidency "in good standing," Kirwan said. "Certainly, a university doesn't want to be in a position of giving a salary to someone who has done anything unethical or illegal or inappropriate, so that would be a fairly standard exception."

Asked why Richardson's contract affords his "emeritus" privileges - among them a maximum teaching load of two graduate courses a year and "office space in size and location ... suitable to his president emeritus status" - even in the case of firing, Resnick said he was unfamiliar with the provision or why it was there.

"It is superfluous at this point," Resnick said. "It's meaningless. It's not going to happen."

Calls to a Morgan spokesman asking to speak with Richardson were not returned.

Resnick said Richardson is evaluated "extensively" by Morgan's regents every year and was found to be not responsible for the problems uncovered in the audit.

"We've had about $300 million worth of construction under his leadership," Resnick said. "To have during that period of time just one negative thing happen, that's almost incredible."

Richardson has, in fact, resisted large pay increases, Morgan officials said. In July 2007, Richardson urged his board to reduce a proposed pay increase, according to Resnick, who owns the banquet firm Martin's Caterers.

"We offered him more, and he cut it back to a 7.5 percent" raise, Resnick said, adding that he doesn't recall how much the board offered.

The typical merit pay increase among presidents in the University System of Maryland has been "anywhere from 2 [percent] to 5 percent" said Kathleen M. Ryan, special assistant to the chancellor.

Last month, Richardson announced his plan to step down in December 2009, after 25 years at Morgan's helm. A 2004 addendum to his contract might shed light on the timing of the retirement. Under the deferred incentive payment plan, colloquially known as a "golden handcuffs" provision, if Richardson stays through the middle of next year he will receive a lump-sum payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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