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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

The 'bucks' never stop

At a time of rapidly escalating tuition charges, news that Ohio State University has created a $165,000 a year job for the wife of its new director of athletics does not help the cause of higher education funding in Ohio.

Sheila Smith, spouse of Gene Smith, started Friday as associate vice president for university development, a fund-raising position.

Ms. Smith followed her husband from Arizona State University, where he was athletics director and she handled gifts of $1 million and more as senior vice president of ASU's foundation.

With that background, she may be worth every penny to OSU, which is about to embark on a major fund-raising campaign. But while her salary is coming from non-tax funds - unrestricted gifts to the university - cash-strapped parents of OSU students may not make the distinction and undoubtedly will be wondering about the university's main priority. Is it to improve academic programs or to line the pockets of ever more highly paid administrators?

Likewise, state lawmakers should be asking tough questions as they draw up the tightest state budget in 40 years. How can university officials expect to convince the legislature to boost state funding above its recent flat line when the money they spend appears to be going for higher salaries?

An OSU spokesman says that Mr. Smith was hired as athletics director with the understanding that the university would try to find a job for his wife. Her salary is said to be comparable to other vice presidents.

Indeed, OSU has an impressive array of administrators at high salary levels, with President Karen Holbrook topping the list at $437,000. The really big bucks, though, are found in Buckeye athletics.

Mr. Smith's starting pay as athletics director is $425,000, but incentives in his contract could raise it to $625,000. OSU's head football coach, Jim Tressel, makes $1.2 million.

While athletic programs at OSU and other public universities generally are funded from the proceeds from athletic events, such high-rolling salaries only provide fodder for those who would question what the real mission is of higher education. Is education the top priority, or is it athletics?

At OSU, as at other state schools, salaries of the president and other top administrators have been rising far faster than the cost of living. Tuition has been going up 9 percent a year for some time now and, while a move is afoot in the legislature to limit this fall's boost to 6 percent, the upward trend shows little sign of leveling out.

Neither does the trend of finding jobs for the spouses of administrators. Last year, Bowling Green State University trustees created a fuss when they found money in the midst of a hiring freeze to create a $66,000 post for the wife of BGSU President Sidney Ribeau. Her job? Hostess and escort for her husband (who makes $286,000 on his own) at university events. But at least she's the spouse of the president, not the athletics director.

In an era in which two salaries are common in many families, we understand the problems inherent in hiring quality people to fill top jobs at state universities. But we have to question whether such piggyback pay arrangements are helping the fight to restore higher education funding.

Certainly, well-heeled friends of OSU should have been able to find private-sector employment for Ms. Smith.

And we have little doubt that parents facing the latest tuition increase feel the same way.



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