Admin turns down raise to leave Rider

By Shanna O’Mara

On the eve of the university’s long-planned major fundraising campaign­— one officials concede is unlikely to find financial support among traditional Westminster donors as the university proceeds with plans to sell the choir college — Rider’s vice president of university advancement will soon be departing for a rival institution at the Jersey Shore.

Jonathan Meer, who began at Rider in 2005, will hit the road in his specially ordered cranberry-colored car, en route to his new office likely adorned with navy blue drapes and the well-known hawk insignia. He was offered the same position at Monmouth five years ago but declined. This past summer, the opportunity arose again but with a 15 percent raise —tacking on approximately $34,000 to his base salary of about $226,000, according to Rider’s 2015 IRS Form 990. President Gregory Dell’Omo offered to match this number, but could not persuade Meer to stay.

“It’s trying to look at the talent that you have,” Dell’Omo said in a Jan. 23 interview. “I’m trying to match what the market is offering to my senior people that I want to keep. If the market is saying that, in this case, Monmouth was going to offer this amount of money, then that’s the market.”

Mary Anne Nagy, the then-acting vice president for external affairs in Monmouth’s University Advancement office, made $219,681 in 2015, according to the school’s IRS Form 990.

Dell’Omo continued, “Basically, I could say, ‘Maybe we were paying below the market in that case,’ whereas faculty are making above the market.”

Perhaps this assumption doesn’t take all factors into consideration. Jeffrey Halpern, chief negotiator for the American Association of University Professors, said it is unfair to offer pay increases to certain employees at Rider while many more have taken cuts under Dell’Omo’s tenure.

“To be giving upper administration dramatic increases while not just the faculty but none of the line staff have gotten their raises, many of them, for four or five years – we have agreed to no raises for six years, none in the previous three or next three years – this is just another sign of how out of touch President Dell’Omo is and why his talk about improving morale on campus is simply empty talk.”

Dell’Omo argued that comparing the wages of faculty and the vice president of university advancement is “inappropriate.”

“In this case, the market was saying that [Meer] was worth more than what we were paying him and if we want to keep him, we had to be competitive,” he said. “If faculty were leaving because the market was paying higher, we would have to respond to that as well.”

Meer said he was offered a great opportunity and discussed it with the president who Meer said was “supportive throughout this.”

“He knew that after now twelve and a half years at Rider, I had fulfilled my obligation to the university,” he said, prompting him to choose to accept the job in West Long Branch which he will begin on March 1.

Before officially resigning, Meer took steps to ensure stability while an interim vice president was appointed and while Dell’Omo opened up a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.

“Before I left, I wanted to make sure we had the right people in place, the right volunteers in place, the right plan in place,” Meer said, noting that Karim Klim would temporarily fulfill his duties starting Feb. 1 and that Denise Pinney would become associate vice president of the upcoming comprehensive campaign. “All the essential pieces are in place and I can move on, knowing I left Rider in a solid place in terms of the areas who report to me.”

Meer said enrollment has been on the rise for the past few years. According to director of enrollment planning and reporting Jennifer Cafiero-Therien, the freshmen class that flooded campus this fall was 15 percent larger than last year, totaling 1,012 students.

Meer also cited the 2016 and 2017 faculty negotiated terms, including a six-year wage freeze, as means by which the university’s financial status has begun to level.

“We have got a lot of helpful concessions from the faculty that will help make long-term benefits for the university,” he said.

While Halpern said he has no hard feelings for Meer, he disagreed with the representation of the university’s finances and stability moving forward.

“I wish Jonathan all the luck in the world, but the reality is that if we are in such terrible shape, which we are not, you shouldn’t be offering somebody a $35,000 increase while everybody else on campus is taking major cuts in compensation,” Halpern said. “Our folks are losing pension, they are paying more for medical, we have lost all of our support for research and scholarship.”

Meer added that Rider “is probably done with the cutbacks we saw in the last three to five years, and now it’s just work the plan.”

The plan will introduce new academic programs and see campus renovations, partly funded by a $38 million bond recently borrowed by the university.

Dell’Omo is also confident that the team in place will be able to “build upon [Meer’s] success.”

“He has done a very good job and has overseen strong fundraising for the university,” Dell’Omo said. “Given where we are as a university, I think we’re going to continue to grow and be even more successful going forward because of the foundation that he has built.”

Just before the spring semester began, Dell’Omo and Meer traveled to California to meet with Rider alumni who, they hoped, would be willing and enthusiastic to give back to their alma mater on the opposite coast. The two visited several prospective donors in La Jolla, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Dell’Omo called the trip successful.

During the 2017 fiscal year, Rider received over $2 million in bequest expectancies, money promised to the university in the future. Other highlight years of pledges include $3.4 million in 2016, $6 million in 2011 and $6.7 million in 2009.

In 2004, the year before Meer was hired, the university only received $25,000 in pledges, according to a fundraising report prepared by associate director of advancement services Karen Bognar.

Many donors, regardless of whether they attended Rider or not, come to campus for sporting events or theater and musical performances and vow to give based on the display of talent they witness, Dell’Omo said. Both he and Meer admitted that WCC has been and still is a hub for admiration and donation.

“We will lose, once we divest of Westminster, those people who support it,” Dell’Omo said. “That money will not likely be coming to Rider. Donors give money to things they really feel passionate about, so the Westminster folks will probably give their money to go along with Westminster and the new buyer.”

Other contributors place clauses in their wills that grant Rider money upon their passing. One woman, for example, pledged to leave $5 million from her estate to the university, Meer said. She alerted Rider of her plans in 2006, and the school received this money in 2013 when she died. That year, over $14 million in cash gifts was raised.

The president is hopeful for the school’s future, even as Meer clears out his desk on Jan. 31. He said Rider is launching a comprehensive plan which will outline the school’s direction over the next few decades.

“Now we have the new strategic plan and we are also developing a campus master plan that lays out what the campus needs to look like from a physical standpoint over the next 15 to 20 years,” Dell’Omo said. “Between those, we can now lay out a vision of where Rider is going to go programmatically, student-wise, endowment-wise, facility-wise.

Meer said the comprehensive fundraising campaign will likely begin this summer or early fall and will continue to bring in money for the next five to seven years.

Dell’Omo said, “Having that vision of where Rider as a whole is going to be going, minus Westminster, will hopefully generate even more support for the university.”

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