Ohio University’s president and the chair of the OU Board of Trustees on Monday night reaffirmed their support of the $100,000 retention bonus awarded in July to Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer while the institution wrestled with financial turmoil.
“Ms. Shaffer has been a strong and capable leader for the University for more than seven years, guiding the institution and the Board of Trustees through significant growth as well as times of financial challenge … Ms. Shaffer has our full support and appreciation,” OU President Duane Nellis and OU Board of Trustees Chairwoman Janelle Coleman said in a jointly released statement.
The bonus, recently uncovered by The Athens NEWS through a public records request, prompted a firestorm of social media backlash aimed at the university administration, much of it from faculty members.
The university leaders’ statement arrived hours after former Interim OU President David Descutner, who formally approved Shaffer’s bonus in 2017 in the form of a signature on her amended contract, published a pointed letter where he offered criticism of the administration’s communication with The NEWS about the circumstances surrounding the bonus.
Descutner also denounced the Board of Trustees’ decision to award Shaffer the bonus, despite the fact that he agreed to the deal when signing her contract. He alleged that he did not review the document before his signature was electronically affixed to it.
“I never would have initiated a conversation with (Shaffer) on this topic because I did not believe her performance was sufficiently meritorious to warrant such an incentive to stay,” he wrote. “Had she proposed such a conversation I would have declined to do so, just as I declined to act on any number of other suggestions she made while I was interim president.”
Nellis and Coleman said in their statement that Shaffer’s contract was drafted at the time by the OU Office of Legal Affairs at direction of the Board of Trustees and sent via email to Descutner for review and approval. Descutner’s office reportedly returned the contract signed, they said.
According to their statement, the former Chair of the Board of Trustees David Wolfort approached Shaffer in 2017 with the bonus offer on the condition that she remain in her role until June 2020, the end of the university’s fiscal year.
They said that Wolfort made the offer in an attempt to ensure “stability in fiscal management of the University,” and that he discussed the deal with the Trustees and then-President Elect Nellis. The reward was quietly paid in full to Shaffer on July 15, 2020.
“Both the Board of Trustees and President Nellis have recognized the importance of Ms. Shaffer’s compensation and the need to be competitive in a national market,” Nellis and Coleman’s statement said. “Ms. Shaffer’s compensation, including bonus compensation, is in line with those in her position at other public institutions in the state of Ohio, and she does her job exceptionally well.”
Shaffer, who has worked for OU since 2013 and served in her current role since 2016, is widely considered to be at the forefront of restructuring the university’s finances in the face of fiscal troubles and who has played a central role in authorizing hundreds of university layoffs. She also serves as chief financial officer and treasurer of both the Board of Trustees and the OU Foundation Board of Trustees.
OU in recent months 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 the university, the single largest employer in the region, 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 taking what they call exorbitant bonuses.
OU also required most faculty, administrators and non-bargaining unit classified staff 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.
In a regular year, Shaffer makes a base salary of $327,726; however, she voluntarily agreed to take a 10 percent reduction to her pay this year because of the added financial strains put onto the university by the coronavirus pandemic.
As of July 1, she now makes a salary of $294,953 on top of the $100,000 bonus, according to the most recent version of her contract. Her salary will return to the base rate in July 2021.
In May, both OU President Duane Nellis and OU Provost Dr. Elizabeth Sayrs announced that they plan to take a 15 percent salary reduction.
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. Both Sayrs and Nellis voluntarily waived their bonuses during this past fiscal year.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated both Nellis and Sayrs agreed to not take bonuses this year. Both voluntarily waived their bonuses during this past fiscal year.