SOUTH KINGSTOWN – After he was forced into the spotlight Friday for authorizing a tuition waiver for the executive assistant of the Institute for International Sport, Robert Carothers, ex-president at the University of Rhode Island, made public his plans to retire at the end of June.
Carothers – serving as president emeritus since 2009– opted to accept URI’s one-time voluntary retirement incentive program. He will finish his three-year contract on June 20 with a total $258,882.
“I always intended to retire when I turned 70. That’s why I had a three-year contract,” says Carothers during a phone interview on Saturday denying that the controversy involving the Institute had affected his decision.
After a memo surfaced last week, URI officials identified Carothers as the one to sign a tuition waiver in 1996– reserved for full-time university employees- to the Institute’s executive assistant, Lorna Prout Wright, who was ineligible.
“I thought it was a reasonable thing to do to provide the tuition waiver as long as the Institute reimbursed the cost to URI. In retrospect and knowing how difficult it would be to collect money from the [Institute], I wouldn’t have done that,” admits Carothers, who led the university from 1991 to 2009.
“It was a grand idea. Everyone wanted it to work,” he says of the sports nonprofit. “But we should have been tougher from the beginning on payments.”
The private nonprofit- whose mission is to foster world peace through sport- and its executive director, Daniel Doyle, are the focus of a state police investigation into how $7.3 million in state support – including a five-year old $575,000 legislative grant intended to construct a building that remains an empty shell - was spent. The nonprofit also owed $380,000, which is recently paid back to the school.
University spokeswoman Linda Acciardo says staff discovered the May 13, 1996, memo in protected tuition waiver files on Monday, but it was not produced to her or URI’s legal counsel until late Thursday afternoon after URI released nearly 1,700 confidential documents to The Narragansett Times.
URI did not make the memo public until Friday when President David M. Dooley stated the tuition waiver was authorized “in a memo from former President Robert Carothers” during a taping of Channel 10 News Conference. Dooley also states the waiver was” inappropriate, inconsistent with board policy, and it was a mistake.”
Carothers explains that his memo indicates what Laura Kenerson, a high level staffer in human resources, led him to believe was a long-standing agreement between his predecessor Edward ‘Ted’ Eddy and the Institute’s board chairman Russell Hogg.
“While I understand that no record can be found of the alleged agreement between Dr. Eddy and Russell Hogg to extend all benefits of University employees to Institute employees, I believe it is appropriate to confirm such an understanding, provided that the Institute continues to reimburse the university for the cost of such benefits as may be extended to its employees,” Carothers writes in the memorandum.
One letter Eddy sent to Doyle on Sept. 7, 1988, indicates that an agreement may have existed.
Writing on behalf of the board of directors, Eddy informs Doyle that he is re-appointed as executive director for another year with a $65,000 salary and pay to lease a car.
“You will receive the normal benefits package accorded employees of the University of Rhode Island, which administers the personnel services of the Institute,” Eddy writes.
The letter does not specify whether the Institute paid the school for Doyle’s payroll. But a university spokeswoman says the Institute did reimburse for the waivers as part an assessed fringe benefit rate. The Institute was billed on a staff benefit allocation rate every pay period.
With approval from the university president, Wright was given a free ride to study landscape architecture while working part-time for Doyle and earning $20,500 annually. She received a long-sought degree from the College of Environment and Life Sciences in 2003 when tuition waivers were worth $3,864 for in-state students and $13,334 for out-of-state students.
A second memo from Hogg released by URI to The Providence Journal by mistake reveals that Wright’s daughter, Marsha, may have also received free tuition.
Given the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restrictions, Acciardo states “it was not our intent to release [the second memo] to anyone. It was a mistake by our office.”
Once URI realized the error, they reframed from releasing the memo to other media news outlets.
The university has refused to release the full waiver documents, including the time period and value of the waivers, for Wright and her daughter.
“I reached out to Lorna Wright several times and she still is not willing to give us full authorization to release the waiver documents,” Acciardo states. “Whether a student receives a tuition waiver is not considered public information.”
URI’s legal counsel believes the federal law restricts them in what they can release regarding student records. Under FERPA, a tuition waiver is deemed a private record. If an institution violates FERPA law, the institution can lose its federal funding and violates student privacy. The only reason why URI has admitted to affording Wright free tuition is because she said it herself publicly.
The start of the state police investigation in March epitomizes a long strained relationship between the university and the sport institute. Documents between the two partners reveal a pattern in which URI financial officers continuously sought payment from the Institute.
Carothers explains that URI tried to balance chasing the nonprofit for accruing debt with the prestige its main event, the world scholar athlete games, brought to the campus.
“We were excited to have these events on campus, but in the back drop there was this constant struggle to collect what they owed us. It was a two-sided relationship,” says Carothers.
Despite the uneasy partnership, Doyle invited Carothers and his then-wife Patricia to an all-expense paid trip to the Ireland Scholar Athlete Games in May 1995. According to a letter sent to Doyle at that time, Carothers declined the offer, but said his wife may be interested in attending.
Though he did not attend that trip in 1997, two years later Carothers admits to attending a trip to the Poetry and Poets Festival in Galway hosted by Doyle and the Institute. Carothers says he does not know who paid for his trip to Galway, but said it is “typical” for the hosting group to pay.
Tension comes to the surface in a March 4, 2008, email, in which Carothers writes: “Let them know that I’m getting angry about this attempt at bullying. I won’t stand for it.”
This email, Carothers explains, refers to when the Institute began pressuring the school to forgive its debt or else it would move to Connecticut.
Carothers says, “I wasn’t willing to [forgive them].” The world scholar athlete games did eventually relocate to the University of Hartford in the summer of 2011.
By 2008, Carothers cut off personal contact with the nonprofit.
“I stopped even going to their events,” he says. “It was a different relationship by that time.”