Dark day for Wright State as state leaders react to unfavorable audit

Josh Sweigart

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Josh Sweigart

In its 50 year history, Friday may have been the darkest day yet for Wright State University.

— Trustees released a 104-page audit that painted a picture of conflicts of interest, lack of fiscal controls and mismanagement.

— Gov. John Kasich’s spokeswoman blasted the previous administration for its “disturbing, long-running practice of seeking to prop itself up by cultivating a regime of secrecy that allowed it to conceal problems from key leaders.”

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— Interim President Curtis McCray said 12 to 20 top administrative positions may be eliminated and he sent a campus-wide email that told students and staff: no more free meals, hold off on purchases, and cancel your university-funded travel plans.

As bad as it was, though, WSU trustees and officials pitched the narrative that they’re on top of it.

“We are committed to transparency. We are committed to compliance… We are committed to living within our means. That was not the case before,” said Dennis Andersh, director of the Wright State Research Institute, at a press conference. He noted that WSRI has already fixed issues auditors found.

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The changes and current attempts to right the ship may keep state officials from intervening in Wright State governance.

“The situation is troubling, but we are pleased that the trustees have been so engaged in getting on top of it. The board is an independent entity and it is the members’ responsibility to handle this, and they are taking that responsibility seriously so something like this won’t happen again,” said John Carey, Ohio’s chancellor of higher education.

House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, a WSU alum, said facts uncovered by auditors “are unsettling and disappointing” but he is confident the challenges will be addressed.

“I believe that the university is already taking positive steps to remedy this unfortunate situation to ensure these kinds of activities do not happen in the future,” he said in a written statement.

State Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, whose district includes WSU, said he is disappointed and surprised at the lack of controls over the years but “I’m pleased the administration in the recent time frame has taken responsibility and taken corrective measures.”

Perales added: “We must fix this because Wright State is too important to this region and this state for this continue. We need to get it straight and we need to get it straight right away.”

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State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Washington Twp., pointed the finger at the previous administration, led by long-time WSU President David Hopkins who stepped down early. “I think the cost cutting measures are unfortunately necessary due to the previous President and his administration’s severe financial mismanagement. I think the interim president and trustees are taking needed steps to restore the university’s fiscal health,” Antani said.

Kasich press secretary Emmalee Kalmbach said in a written statement: “The trustees were right to conduct this audit once the depths of the university’s problems became apparent. We’re currently in the process of reviewing its findings but what’s clearly evident is the previous administration’s disturbing, long-running practice of seeking to prop itself up by cultivating a regime of secrecy that allowed it to conceal problems from key leaders. It’s incumbent upon this era of university leaders to turn the page, restore confidence and commit itself to the transparency and accountability essential to healthy organizations.”

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In 1996, then Gov. George V. Voinovich appointed six new members to the Central State University board of trustees and prepared to replace three others who refused to resign admid a financial scandal. Central State’s problems included unauditable books, condemned dorms, hostile legislators and growing debt.

WSU Board of Trustee Chairman Michael Bridges said the university has been updating the Kasich administration and state officials.

“All of us board members recognize that we serve at the pleasure of the governor. We’re all volunteers,” Bridges said. “As a professional courtesy, the right thing to do is to just keep them up to date on that.”

Bridges took issue with the characterization that the audit is “secret.” The university withheld it for two years, citing the need to keep it confidential while federal authorities investigated WSU’s use of H-1B visas to bring in foreign workers.

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office said its financial compliance audits are public records and available online. “We are unaware of another audit that was handled in this manner,” Yost spokesman Ben Marrison said of the Wright State audit.

Amanda Wright Lane, who anchored a major fundraising campaign for Wright State University with actor Tom Hanks, said she stands with the university and applauds the decision to release the full audit.

Lane, the great grandniece of the Wright Brothers for whom the university is named, said “I still think Wright State has given students such a great opportunity and education.” She praised the board of trustees for remediating past mistakes.

“I think everyone is ready to move forward and I still believe in the mission of Wright State,” Lane said Friday evening.

She also noted that Wright State Research Institute’s mission of seeking out research grants and projects is an excellent plan but “the execution wasn’t completely there.”

Lane said that her uncles Wilbur and Orville Wright were “incredibly straight forward people” who would have likely met the current problems at the university head on. “I think they would’ve taken the same approach,” she said.

Lane and Hanks, who could not be immediately reached for comment, co-chaired Wright State’s Rise.Shine campaign that raised more than $150 million last year.

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