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AFSCME Protest

AFSCME Local 1699 members in June protested the layoffs of 140 union members. Photo by Ben Peters

Ohio University's Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer was offered in 2019 an additional $100,000 retention bonus on the condition that she remain in her role until at least June 2023, according to her amended contract.

The bonus was promised to her in May 2019 by OU President Duane Nellis at direction of the OU Board of Trustees when her contract, a copy of which was obtained by The Athens NEWS through a public records request, was amended.

Should Shaffer be terminated prior to June 30, 2023, she would no longer be eligible to receive the payment, the contract said. 

"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.”

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.

In July 2020, Shaffer, one of highest paid employees at the university, quietly accepted a separate $100,000 retention bonus authorized to her in March 2017 under OU’s former Interim President David Descutner at direction of the Board of Trustees.

That bonus, recently uncovered by The NEWS, 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.

It also led Descutner to publish a pointed letter to the editor in The NEWS on Monday where he denounced the Board of Trustees’ decision to award Shaffer the July 2020 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.”

In response to Descutner's letter and The NEWS' original report on the July 2020 bonus, Nellis and Janelle Coleman, chair of the OU Board of Trustees, jointly released a statement Monday night doubling down on their support of both Shaffer's July 2020 bonus and her job performance.

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 paid in full to Shaffer on July 15, 2020.

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 administrators140 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. The university and the Board of Trustees released statements in support of the two following the vote.

“This is a disappointing outcome, and I want to make it abundantly clear that the Ohio University Board of Trustees stands firmly behind President Nellis, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deb Shaffer, and the Ohio University leadership team in their commitment to transparency, efforts to encourage collaboration and a collective development of a strong strategic vision,” former Board of Trustees Chair Dave Scholl said of the vote.

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 in this past fiscal year.

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