Iowa Board of Regents executive director made more than double his capped salary

Deferred compensation, bonuses increased Robert Donley's pay to $338,466

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Board of Regents Executive Director Robert Donley earned $338,466 in salary, bonuses and deferred compensation in the 2015 budget year — more than doubling a salary cap set by the state Legislature and approaching the base salary of the University of Northern Iowa’s president.

The $184,166 that Donley received in 2015 over his base salary of $154,300 was the result of a $5,000 bonus approved in 2014 and $179,166 in payouts from two deferred compensation plans approved in 2012 and in 2013, board spokesman Josh Lehman said.

“They are incentives,” Lehman said. “There are deferred compensation plans for other institutional heads as well.”

In his role as executive director, Donley oversees 21 staff members responsible for providing assistance to the Iowa Board of Regents as it oversees the state’s public universities and special schools, including reviewing and analyzing institutional proposals and preparing recommendations to the board.

The board office’s total budget, according to documents made public this week, is $4.5 million annually, including $3.6 million in personnel and board per diem expenditures.

The Legislature years ago capped the board executive director’s base salary at $154,300, although the board began approving $5,000 bonuses for Donley years ago and offered deferred compensation plans in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Donley has a two-year deferred compensation plan worth $125,000 scheduled to pay out in 2016 and a plan worth $140,000 scheduled to pay out in 2017, according to board documents.

John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher for the American Association of University Professors, said deferred compensation plans are not uncommon in higher education. But salary caps typically are made to be honored, he said.

“I would not say that’s in the spirit of a cap,” Barnshaw said. “That’s a hell of a lot of reimbursement.”

He said Donley’s above-base compensation could equate to tuition for several students, salary adjustments for faculty members or smaller campus projects — things that help with student and faculty retention.

“What else could public universities be doing with those funds?” he asked.

Donley could receive another bonus and deferred compensation plan next week when the regents consider “personnel action” for its university presidents, special school superintendent and executive director.

Historically, such action has included pay raises, bonuses or deferred compensation for the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and UNI presidents, the Iowa School for the Deaf and Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School superintendent, and the board executive director.

Details of what the board might consider next week have not been made public. The board’s June 8 evaluations of its institution heads and executive director — which did not include outgoing UNI President Bill Ruud — were done privately.

“That docket item is the place in the agenda where if the board wants to take action for compensation, they would,” Lehman said.

Last year, following the evaluations, the board approved a 5 percent pay raise for ISU President Steven Leath, bringing his salary in line with former UI President Sally Mason at $525,000.

The board at that time also approved a five-year deferred compensation plan for Leath, paying him $125,000 annually through 2020. UNI’s Ruud — who recently left to lead Marietta College in Ohio — received a 2.5 percent bump in his base pay, bringing it to $357,110, along with a two-year deferred compensation plan with annual contributions of $75,000.

Steve Gettel, superintendent of the state’s special schools, received a 3 percent raise that brought his salary to $185,400 with $20,000 performance incentives — one paid out last year and one to be paid out after his 2016 evaluation.

UI President Bruce Harreld wasn’t on the job yet last August when the board approved new compensation levels. But when he started in November, the board set his first-year salary at $590,000, with a five-year deferred compensation plan contributing $200,000 annually.

An AAUP report this year showed presidential salaries at all three Iowa public universities topped national averages for similar institutions.

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