The Montana Board of Regents outlined its top priorities heading into the 2013 legislative session Thursday, naming pay and benefits for university employees as their highest priority, along with several building initiatives.
Meeting at the University of Montana, regents discussed a sweeping number of issues likely to come into play when the Legislature convenes in January. With the election over and the balance of power set, the lobbying already has begun.
Regents kicked off the two-day session reviewing 2012 fall enrollment figures across the Montana University System before jumping into their legislative priorities.
Every two years, the regents prepare a list of long-range building projects for legislative consideration. Missoula College remains their top building priority, even though legislators have twice denied the project funding.
Regents likely will argue this session that the two-year college has seen its enrollment double to more than 2,100 students, yet it remains the only two-year college not to receive an upgrade in recent history. The $47 million project would relieve overcrowding and provide students a modern, quality education.
“Missoula College is the most direct connection to the workforce we have in the university system,” UM President Royce Engstrom said. “It’s critical that we provide students who are taking advantage of a two-year education with a quality facility that keeps them competitive in the workforce.”
Also on the state’s wish list is a $14.7 million project to remodel and expand the Allied Health and Science Building at Montana Sate University-Billings, and a $7.9 million project to build a new auto and diesel technology facility at MSU-Northern in Havre.
Regents also discussed their goal to increase wages and benefits for faculty and staff. It now stands among the board’s highest policy initiatives going into the 2013 legislative session.
“In our colleges, our senior faculty members earn considerably less than equal faculty in other states,” said Regent Pat Williams. “That simply must be rectified.”
Faculty representatives from UM and Montana State University told regents that the state system no longer offers competitive wages. Skilled employees have been lured away to similar but higher-paying jobs in surrounding states, much to the detriment of Montana’s students.
“Salary increases have been low the past number of years,” said Dave Shively, president of the University of Montana Faculty Association. “We do more with less and we’re happy to do as much as we can. But we do appreciate you (regents) making this a priority issue.”
The system’s current low wages also make it difficult to recruit new faculty to fill vacant jobs, or to retain faculty already in place.
Shively said a recent poll across the Montana University System asked the chairs of 17 departments to describe their recruitment efforts over the past six years. They reported 61 vacancies resulting in 75 searches with only a minimal amount of recruiting success.
The level of compensation was viewed as being below market conditions in other states. Many agreed that it wasn’t helping the state’s efforts to recruit quality applicants.
“I’ve heard repeatedly the greatest concern of staff is that wage increases don’t keep up with the rise in the cost of basic needs,” said Christine Vance, UM chapter president of the Montana Public Employees Association. “We need to look at how can we make our wage increases match the cost of food, basically.”
Regents said that offering competitive pay – or denying it – could impact the Montana University System for years to come.
Williams delivered an impassioned speech on the matter, arguing that wages must increase and the cost of tuition must hold steady. He placed the blame on past Legislatures, suggesting their refusal to address the issues has resulted in a tax on students and their parents.
“The situation, I feel, is perilous,” he said. “When the Legislature refuses to do its part, as it has time and time again in recent history, the burden falls to the parents. It’s a tax on our students, and their parents are paying through the nose for what the Legislature won’t do.”
In the morning session, regents looked at the 10-year enrollment history of full-time students. Changing demographics resulted in a 1 percent decrease in the state’s number of full-time students this fall.
“For the past four years, I’ve stood here saying we have record fall enrollment,” said Tyler Trevor of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. “This is the first year I won’t be able to say that. We’ve had explosive growth in the system, and this is the plateau we’ve hit.”
The figures varied this year from one school to the next, with MSU recording an increase of 629 full-time students, and Gallatin College marking an increase of 33. UM was down 739 students, MSU-Billings lost 90 full-time students and Helena College lost 48.
Other schools included MSU-Northern, which increased its enrollment by three, UM-Western jumped by 74, and Montana Tech lost 27.
Regents reported that all three community colleges combined lost 209 students, leading some to speculate on the role the energy boom in eastern Montana has had on enrollment.
Dawson College has been particularly hard hit, scoring a retention rate in the 40 percent range. Williams said it likely wasn’t due to a systemic problem at Dawson, but rather, a result of the oil boom.
“Regents have noticed the last couple meetings that our good friends out at Dawson College have been experiencing some difficulty,” Williams said. “We want to take a serious look at Dawson, but as we do, we need to consider the odd nature of the economy out there.”
The bigger issue to regents was Montana’s drop in high school students. Changing demographics suggest the trend may continue over the next few years as fewer students enter the high school system.
“There’s a natural decline occurring in national high school grads,” Trevor said. “We probably won’t pull out of that until 2017. We’ve been saying this since the fall of 2008. Since that time, we’ve lost 1,000 grads, not because K-12 isn’t doing its job, it’s just a natural trend in Montana.”
That will force the Montana University System to place greater emphasis on recruitment and retention.
Systemwide, 450 fewer first-time freshmen students returned for their second year, including 337 who were considered resident students.
“That’s where the majority of our decline occurs,” he said. “You can’t get around the fact that we lost students in this area. It’s a compounding problem.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, firstname.lastname@example.org or @martinkidston.