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From left, OU officials during a media availability at Walter Hall in January 2019: Deborah Shaffer, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer for the Board of Trustees; President Duane Nellis; OU Trustee Chair David Scholl; and former Provost and Executive Vice President Chaden Djalali.

The Ohio University Board of Trustees did not publicly vote to award Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer both of the $100,000 retention bonuses outlined within her contract because it wasn’t the board members' job to do so.

While OU President Duane Nellis publicly claimed credit for offering and approving the second retention bonus in 2019, it’s not exactly clear who authorized the big-dollar reward she accepted in July.

The university and former Interim OU President David Descutner pointed fingers at each other this week in dueling statements over the details surrounding the administration of the bonus, effectively obscuring the chain of command surrounding such an extraordinary reward.

It’s likely that the Board of Trustees discussed the bonus in closed-door executive sessions in early 2017, but since those sessions aren’t public record, it’s not clear who participated. Meeting minutes documents from the time only specify that the board in executive session considered “the employment or compensation of a public employee.” 

A university spokesperson indicated Wednesday that whoever the university president was who signed Shaffer’s contract had the final say, which was Descutner.

“The President has sole authority to authorize compensation to members of the executive cabinet,” spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in a statement. “However, as an officer of the board, it is appropriate for the Board of Trustees to discuss and weigh in on the compensation for the Chief Financial Officer of the institution.”

The Board of Trustees’ bylaws grant the president authority to “initiate any subject” at meetings. The president’s contract also gives them the power to promote staff members.

Descutner, who signed Shaffer’s amended contract that outlined the terms of the bonus, alleged in a pointed letter to the editor in The Athens NEWS on Monday that two Trustees (he doesn’t specify who) approached him at a spring 2017 meeting saying they planned to offer Shaffer the bonus.

Descutner had just returned to the institution after retiring in 2015 to serve as interim president under appointment by the Board of Trustees. He had only been interim president for a few months at the time of the 2017 meeting.

The former interim president alleged that he was guided by members of the board under the impression that they had supreme authority over administrative bonuses. He said that he did not question what he called “their decision” to grant Shaffer the bonus.

“They told me that the Trustees had decided to award Ms. Shaffer a retention bonus to secure her services through June 2020. They made it plain that they were seeking neither my input nor my approval because the Trustees had already decided,” Descutner wrote.

“I understood the Trustees had the authority to make such a decision, and I did not view their decision as irregular in any way. I should also say that I believed then, and believe now, that the Trustees made this decision with the best interests of the university in mind. I did not speak about the bonus with either the Trustees or Ms. Shaffer after that day.”

Descutner in his letter also denounced what he believed to be 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 Janelle Coleman, chair of the Board of Trustees, jointly said in a statement Monday 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, former Chair of the Board of Trustees David Wolfort reportedly 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.

Both bonuses, 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 after hundreds of employees lost their jobs partially at Shaffer's hands as the institution continues to grapple with significant financial troubles.

Nellis and Coleman have adamantly and repeatedly defended both Shaffer’s bonuses and her job performance.

"Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deb Shaffer is a critical member of my leadership team," Nellis said in a statement. "In renewing her contract, it was important to recognize Deb’s accomplishments during her tenure while maintaining continuity and institutional knowledge that is truly invaluable. Additionally, offering Deb appropriate compensation in a competitive market was the right thing to do.”

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