The governing board for the University System of Maryland voted to give Chancellor Robert Caret a $75,000 bonus and a $30,000 raise in a closed meeting last week, raising questions about why the vote was made in private and the information not made public.
Caret, who began overseeing 12 of the state's public institutions in July, will see his base salary of $600,000 rise to $630,000 in the next fiscal year because of the merit increase, USM spokesman Mike Lurie said. His contract allows for an annual bonus of up to 15 percent of his salary, which this year could have been up to $90,000.
The vote was taken at a Board of Regents meeting in Cambridge on Friday in a closed session and disclosed in response to media inquiries. Lurie said the vote fell under the "personnel matters" exception of the state's Open Meetings Act, which allows the discussion of compensation to be held in private. The law generally requires meetings of public bodies to be conducted in public.
"I can see keeping some of his performance evaluation behind closed doors, but the ultimate decision to do a bonus, that should be a public decision," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. "These budget decisions have a public impact."
Caret didn't respond to a request for comment, and Board of Regents chair James Shea was unavailable for comment. Regent Barry Gossett, vice chair of the board, said in a statement that the bonus reflected Caret's annual evaluation.
"The board's approval of Chancellor Caret's (fiscal) 2017 salary and performance bonus acknowledges his excellent leadership of a dynamic and complex organization that encompasses 12 institutions and drives economic development in our state," Gossett said.
Regent Francis X. Kelly, Jr. said representatives from the Maryland attorney general's office advise the board what can be done in closed session.
"I can't imagine the attorney general letting us vote on something in closed session if we weren't supposed to," he said. "I have no problem doing it in the open myself. All I can tell you is we're very careful about not doing things in closed session that we shouldn't be doing."
Christine Tobar, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, declined to comment and referred to past opinions of the compliance board that have ruled discussion of compensation can take place in private.
The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board has found the Board of Regents violated the state open meetings law in the past.
In 2013, it found that the regents violated the law when they met in closed session to discuss the University of Maryland's move from the ACC collegiate athletic conference to the Big Ten Conference. A few months after that decision, the board ruled that regents routinely violated the open meetings law by regularly and improperly invoking the law's "administrative function" exemption to discuss public business in private.
The Board of Regents said it would change the way it handled such exceptions to comply with the law.
Bevan-Dangel said the open meetings law is vague regarding personnel matters but that the Board of Regents should err on the side of openness.
"Given their history of making closed-door decisions, we really do urge them to rethink their use of these exceptions and their apparent eagerness to take these decisions behind closed doors," Bevan-Dangel said. "The culture of wanting to avoid public oversight seems deep and troubling."
Former regents chair and Towson University alumnus David Nevins said that while it was appropriate to discuss the issue in private, the board should have made its decision public.
"I think that we are very lucky in the state of Maryland to have someone as experienced and as successful at his position as Dr. Caret," Nevins said. "I think to keep such a person, it is appropriate to pay them what you need to pay them to keep them. I think its also appropriate to reward people for hard and successful work."
Virletta Bryant, chair of the Council of University System Faculty, which represents faculty at Board of Regents meetings, pointed out the salary increase is more than many of the faculty earn.
"What we are witnessing in Maryland represents a broader national problem in academia," Bryant said. "Faculty have repeatedly denounced the disproportionate increase in salaries and compensation on the administrative side of academia, versus the investment that is made to the core mission of teaching and learning."
Adrian Boafo, an official with the University System of Maryland Student Council, said students have been vocal in demanding greater transparency from the university system in general.
"I understand that Chancellor Caret is a very popular guy country-wide and they probably want to be competitive, so I get it," Boafo said. "I just think it could have been done in a more transparent way, especially since students are looking for more transparency."
Boafo, who graduated from the University of Baltimore last month, noted that the system just raised in-state tuition in April by 2 percent for the next school year.
"We increase tuition, but we increase the pay of the chancellor," he said. "It probably wasn't the best idea."
Katherine Swanson, the student body president at the University of Maryland, also said the board should have been more transparent.
"It really does make me uncomfortable that it was in closed session," she said. "I don't know that it was necessary. It's the public's job and my job to make sure they're making the right decision."
Kelly said the board was sensitive to tuition increases — which have been 3 percent or less for the last few years — but didn't think the issues were related.
"They're totally separate issues," he said. "I think Maryland's been pretty good on the tuition side, to be honest with you."
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said he couldn't comment beyond saying that the governor "supports transparency in government."
Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican who sponsored successful legislation to beef up the Open Meetings Act this year, said she understands the need to discuss personnel issues behind closed doors.
"Once you make a decision, it's a public record. Put it out there," she said. "Erring on the side of transparency has never hurt."
Del. Adrienne Jones, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the system's budget, called the move one year into the chancellor's tenure "surprising."
Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she wished she and other key legislators had been given a heads-up.
"To me it is better to let us know, as opposed to reading it in the paper," she said.
The procedures followed by the regents contrasted with the approach taken Wednesday by another state body, the Interagency Committee on School Construction.
In that case, when the agency reached the end of its public agenda, a member moved to go into closed session to discuss a personnel issue.
After roughly 20 minutes behind closed doors, the public was invited back in and a vote was taken to return to open session. With the public present, a member made a motion to carry out the result of their discussions — to hire an interim executive director to replace the retiring incumbent — and the committee approved the plan in a public vote.
Bevan-Dangel said that's the way agencies should do business.
"That process seems like a very good model," she said.
Caret's job perks
•Base salary will increase by at least 5 percent annually, including both merit and cost-of-living increases.
•Eligible for a bonus of up to 15 percent of base salary each year.
•Required to live at the Hidden Waters residence in Baltimore County.
•Provided an annual $53,000 insurance annuity for retirement.
•Provided with car and driver.