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DDN: WSU leaders say painful year set them up for future

Wright State campus

Excerpt from the Dayton Daily News

Wright State University’s 50th year was often more difficult than it was celebratory, but leaders say it was key to setting the school up for future success.

“I look at 2017 as a really good year," said board of trustees chairman Doug Fecher. “We did a lot of good work this last year and I think we’ll see some of it pay off.”

It wasn’t without pain. Throughout the last 12 months, Wright State has faced budget issues, scandals, federal and state investigations, lawsuits and harsh criticism from state leaders. Bargaining over a new contract with faculty have also been tense — so much so that a dispute arose over Fecher’s use of the word “flexibility” during negotiations. The university has also said it will consider employee furloughs if finances don’t improve.

Wright State’s financial woes are easily its biggest hurdle going forward. The university trimmed more than $30.8 million from its fiscal year 2018 budget to begin correcting years of overspending that drained the school’s reserve fund.

Wright State is aiming to boost reserves by $6 million this year but the school needs to slash an additional $10.5 million from its budget because of unexpected fellowship and scholarship costs and enrollment problems. Although the school has said it plans to make up the costs, mostly through attrition, officials have warned that the school is still operating uncomfortably close to its budget.

“We are basically operating at razor thin levels with no margin for errors going forward,” Sean Fitzpatrick, WSU trustee and chairman of the board’s finance committee said last month.

Along with financial issues, this year Wright State’s legal bill climbed to more than $2 million for a federal H-1B visa investigation that started more than two years ago and continues today.

The school was also sued multiple times this year for issues stemming from its lost 2016 presidential debate. One lawsuit was filed by a consultant for $2 million and another $170,000 lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Marriott at the University of Dayton for cancelled debate hotel rooms. Consultant John McCance has said he plans to refile his suit in the Ohio Court of Claims while the UD Marriot withdrew its lawsuit in October.

Wright State’s former president David Hopkins abruptly resigned in March, three months before his planned retirement. In his resignation letter, Hopkins cited the school’s budget problems that mounted under his watch.

The Ohio Inspector General’s office, in a report earlier this month,flagged as questionable about $1.8 million of the $2.3 million Wright State paid economic development consultant Ron Wine and also sent a 20-page report on the findings to the Greene County prosecutor’s office and state auditor for review.

Wine sued in the university in the Ohio Court of Claims, alleging the school owes him $4.5 million.

“Ron Wine did this whole thing the way Wright State told him to do it,” his attorney, Ken Ignozzi, told this newspaper.

The end of Hopkins’ tenure meant Wright State now has its first female president: Cheryl Schrader. According to board members and school officials, Schrader has taken a more proactive approach to the school’s finances in an effort to quickly right the ship.

If the university manages to stick to its 2018 budget goal it may narrowly avoid state fiscal watch, though the furlough plan is being developed in case the school falls short.

Schrader is also in the middle of developing a strategic plan for the college that leaders are hopeful will guide Wright State out of some of its hardest years. That plan will be completed next fall.

Schrader said the school has a bright future.