A high-ranking Wright State University administrator is getting paid an extra $60,000 on top of his six-figure salary to direct preparations for the presidential debate the university will host on Sept. 26.
In all, Vice President for Planning Robert. J. Sweeney received three stipends in 2015. That brought his compensation to $364,432 and made him the eighth highest paid employee at Wright State, which has raised tuition, cut staff and dipped into reserves because of a budget shortfall.
The bulk of Sweeney’s debate stipend will be paid out this year.
“I think that there are legitimate questions that the people in the public could ask, most especially about this extra amount being paid for the debate,” said Greg Lawson, senior policy analyst for The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy, a Columbus-based conservative think tank.
“Wouldn’t (that) in a certain sense be an element of what you are already being compensated for? Everybody always says you need to do more with less.”
Martin Kich, faculty union president, also raised questions about the stipend payments while the university is grappling with a $27.7 million operating budget shortfall. The shortfall caught many by surprise and university officials blame it on unplanned expenses and a decline in revenue, particularly on investment returns.
“I think spending any large amount of money in the current environment is an issue,” said Kich, an English professor who is president of the American Association of University Professors, which represents 650 to 700 full-time faculty at WSU.
“There is belt-tightening by everybody, but every time an administrator gets extra responsibility they get well-compensated for it. That’s not necessarily the same with faculty and staff.”
Sweeney’s 2015 compensation includes three stipends totaling $99,248 along with a $53,700 bonus and a $7,200 annual car allowance, said Seth Bauguess, WSU director of communications.
Sweeney, a vice president since 2007 when David R. Hopkins became president and promoted him, also serves as secretary to the board of trustees. Sweeney received one of his stipends for his three-month stint last year as interim chief operating officer.
Michael Bridges, chairman of the board of trustees, said stipends historically have been used as part of the compensation process for department chairpersons and other jobs.
“The board absolutely understands we have a budget issue at the university and we are working diligently with the administration on that,” Bridges said. “However, it is not up to the board to begin managing the stipends of the university. That is the administration’s role.”
Sweeney and Hopkins did not respond to requests for comment. Bauguess said Hopkins will address questions about the debate at a later date.
Sweeney is being assisted in debate preparations by two new full-time employees hired in January under one-year contracts. John McCance will be paid $108,000 annually to serve as a liaison with the Commission on Presidential Debates, which oversees the debates, and with elected officials. McCance was already working as a consultant for more than a year assisting in preparation of the debate application.
Steven Warden will get $80,000 in pay annually and a $75 per month car allowance as corporate and community giving officer, charged with raising money to fund the debate. WSU documents indicate he may be kept on after a year to work on the university’s 50th anniversary celebration.
All other university staff assigned to work on the debate will do so without stipend compensation, including those involved in security, cybersecurity, construction, media relations, academics, student activities and other jobs, Bauguess said.
The debate is the first one scheduled for the fall General Election and Hopkins has estimated it could cost up to $8 million. Hopkins said in May that about $2.5 million had been raised through cash and sponsorships, in-kind contributions and what the university expects to receive in charge-back fees assessed to media outlets and others during the event. Cash donations total about $500,000 and the state legislature awarded a $220,000 security grant.
Bridges said university funds will be used to pay upfront costs but would be reimbursed from fundraising.
“We do not want to use any base budget funds from the university for the debate,” Bridges said.
Sweeney remains a tenured finance professor and formerly served as director of Wright State’s Kettering Center for Continuing Education. He also is former chair of the department of finance, insurance and real estate.
Bauguess said Sweeney does not teach classes but could return to teaching if he leaves the administration. As a professor-turned-administrator he currently receives a $70,523 administrative stipend on top of his annual base pay of $208,044. The other two stipends last year were $15,000 for filling in as the school’s chief operating officer and $15,000 for the first three months of his debate work.
Last July he received a 3.75 percent raise, boosting both his base pay and administrative stipend.
His $53,700 bonus was the second highest awarded in 2015, according to this newspaper’s analysis of payroll data provided by the university. Hopkins had the highest bonus, a $354,560 payment that brought his total cash compensation to $854,220.
Last year, 92 of the university’s 3,704 employees received bonuses, including five people who received $19,000 or more. Of the $640,518 in bonus payments, more than 55 percent of the total went to Hopkins, according to the university’s payroll data.
The total employee payroll was $196 million.
Bauguess said the school’s payroll data for total gross pay is accurate but that some retroactive payments to employees may not be captured in the bonus and stipend fields.
Wright State gave a total of $5.5 million in stipends to 346 employees last year, according to the data the university provided the newspaper.
Both Kich and Lawson said they understand it is a big deal for Wright State to host a presidential debate, the first in Ohio since 1980 when President Jimmy Carter debated former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in Cleveland.
But Lawson said the school should explain the justification for Sweeney’s extra compensation.
“There’s no reason to be hiding anything about that,” he said. “Even when individual cases aren’t what breaks the bank it makes normal people scratch their head and say to themselves, ‘I don’t get to do that. I don’t have that kind of advantage.’”
Wright State's highest-paid employees, 2015
Wright State's biggest bonuses, 2015
Wright State's biggest stipends, 2015