By Ben Peters
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
Ohio University President Duane Nellis authorized substantial raises in recent years for his Chief of Staff Jennifer Kirksey that cumulatively nearly doubled her already large salary.
Between 2018 and 2019 Kirksey’s $132,000 salary ballooned to a base rate of nearly $250,000 after Nellis adjusted it to account for what he and those in his inner-circle called a discrepancy in her pay relative to the chiefs of staff of presidents at peer universities and the chiefs of staff of other OU executives.
Kirksey’s salary remains on the high end of the higher education marketplace, according to the university, placing near the 75th percentile in the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA) survey of salaries of those in Kirksey’s position at peer universities. The benchmark salary of a university president’s chief of staff in 2019 was $212,000, data provided by OU shows.
Her salary, like those of many top administrators, has since decreased by 15 percent in recent months because of the added financial strains put onto the university by the coronavirus pandemic. She now makes about $211,000.
Her salary will return to its base rate in 2021, according to Kirksey’s contract.
“Jennifer Kirksey is an extremely valued member of my leadership team. With more than 20 years of service at OHIO, Jennifer has a wealth of institutional knowledge and expertise that are vital to our operations,” Nellis said in a statement. “She serves as an extension for me, and when I became Ohio University’s 21st President, I felt it was essential to review Jennifer’s position, which I elevated to align more closely with her peers at OHIO’s other public Universities.”
Nellis in May 2018 had several email correspondences, obtained by The Athens NEWS, with Chief Human Resource Officer Colleen Bendl where he asked her to conduct an analysis of Kirksey’s salary. Her $132,000 salary at the time, Bendl said to Nellis, was well below the industry benchmark for her position outlined by both CUPA and EduComp, another organization that tracks higher education compensation.
Bendl also noted in the correspondence that Kirksey was paid less than the OU provost’s then-chief of staff, Laura Myers, and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer’s chief of staff, Chad Mitchell. Myers and Mitchell earned at the time $148,000 and $152,000 respectively, according to the email.
Bendl followed up saying that when executive compensation was conducted and reviewed at the time, both Kirksey’s and Myers’ salaries were at the 25th percentile. Myers’ was adjusted but Jennifer’s was not. Mitchell was not yet in his chief of staff role at the re-evaluation time.
Weeks later, Bendl emailed Kelly Coakley, who works with the university’s Compensation Partner Group, saying that Nellis wanted to increase Kirksey’s salary to $170,000, the low end of the industry benchmark.
A year later in June 2019, Nellis signed off on a document to raise her salary again to nearly $250,000, well above the industry benchmark, based on market competition, her education and years of experience, according to documents provided by the university.
While Myers no longer serves as the provost’s chief of staff, Kirksey now earns a significantly larger salary than Mitchell and Cary Roberts Frith, Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Sayrs’ chief of staff.
University executives at the time of both raises were well aware of the budgetary hurdles that the university continues to wrestle with to this day. In recent months, OU laid off more than 400 employees in an effort to cut back on expenses as the pandemic has exacerbated the university’s already aching budgetary issues. And it expects to further experience a budget defect of nearly $300 million in the coming years.
OU, the single largest employer in the region, also made a concerted effort to offer incentives for certain employees to retire early. At least 88 employees, many of whom were faculty members, accepted early retirement deals.
More than 200 instructional faculty and administrators, 140 skilled-trade workers in the ASFCME Local 1699 union, and 81 classified clerical and technical employees have all lost their jobs since May, prompting several Uptown protests where many expressed a great sense of anger at administrators large salaries and at them taking what the demonstrators called exorbitant bonuses.
Most faculty, administrators and non-bargaining unit classified staff are required to take mandatory furlough days this year in an additional effort to cut costs.
Faculty Senate voted in May to approve a vote of no confidence in both Shaffer and Nellis, condemning their handing of the university’s financial crisis. The university and the Board of Trustees released statements in support of the two following the vote.
In May, both OU President Duane Nellis and OU Provost Dr. Elizabeth Sayrs announced that they plan to take a 15 percent salary reduction. Sayrs and Nellis also voluntarily waived their bonuses in this past fiscal year.
Nellis’ salary before the reduction was about $489,000, plus a $71,000 bonus that was granted to him in 2019 by the Board of Trustees. His new salary after the pay cut will be about $416,000, his contract says. Sayrs’ base salary is nearly $379,000. It will be about $313,000 after the reduction, according to her contract.
Both of their salaries will return to the base rates in July 2021.