The Montana Board of Regents approved raises Tuesday for top leaders at the University of Montana and Montana University System, but the increases weren't a slam dunk.
The pay bumps, as much as $6,093 for UM President Royce Engstrom and $6,063 for Commissioner Clay Christian, were on the consent agenda. Earlier this month, an official for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education said regents would likely approve the item without discussion – and as negotiated.
On Tuesday, though, Regent Martha Sheehy of Billings requested the board discuss the 2 percent raises for campus leaders. She said the argument for the increases is that they are "normal" and routine, but the system is facing challenges.
"It actually surprises me that this is going through as 'normal' because this isn't a normal time," Sheehy said.
The documents outlining the proposed raises have a column for the "reason" given for each increase, and they list most as "normal."
In November, Engstrom announced UM would need to cut some 201 full-time positions, and his vice president for finance said the campus would need to save some $10 million to $12 million in its 2017 fiscal year budget. The financial shortage is tied to an enrollment decline.
Montana State University in Billings has also experienced a drop in enrollment.
On Tuesday, Sheehy questioned the raises considering "the job cuts we have inflicted on the system," and she also contrasted the amounts going to people in top posts with the 50-cents-an-hour increases for hourly classified staff.
Since the raises were not based on performance, Sheehy suggested a couple of other approaches that would be fair.
The regent said the board could discuss an across-the-board reduction in increases. She said regents also could take up an administrative pay freeze in light of the budget plan revisions at UM.
"We've retained authority over their salaries for a reason," Sheehy said of system leaders.
At the very least, she said, the board should review the compensation of the three highest-paid employees, especially because the presidents of the flagship universities and the commissioner are on track to each receive $500,000 "bonuses for longevity."
In an earlier interview, deputy commissioner of communications Kevin McRae said salaries for top administrators at UM remain low compared to national averages. He said pay for higher-level administrators on campus can be as low as 60 percent of the national average.
|Vice president, research||193,925||197,804|
|Vice president, finance||177,197||180,741|
|Vice president, student affairs||157,523||160,673|
|Vice president, communications||154,196||157,280|
|Associate provost, global education||136,000||138,720|
Source: Montana University System; visit link for more details
The board met this month via teleconference, and Sheehy was the only audible vote against the raises.
However, other regents also discussed them. Regent Robert Nystuen, market president of Glacier Bank, said he is new to the board and still learning about its approach, but he offered the strategy the private sector employs in compensation.
Generally, he said, inflation drives annual raises, and it's supposed to be around 1 percent. However, he said things often cost more, and he's accustomed to budgeting for a 3 percent increase.
"But that doesn't mean everybody gets 3 percent across the board," Nystuen said.
High performers may get 5 percent, and those who didn't measure up might get a one-time pay increase, he said.
Nystuen said he doesn't want to single out a particular campus since some of them are doing "exceedingly well." He isn't convinced that 2 percent should be the norm going forward, but he isn't concerned with it this year.
"Good people don't cost you money. They produce a good return on investment," said Nystuen, who made the motion to approve the raises.
Commissioner Christian also commented on raises based on performance. He said his office looked at the idea during the summer, and he wants to continue the conversation despite the challenges of implementing merit raises at public institutions.
Privacy and confidentiality issues come into play, and the performance measures can't be arbitrary, he said. However, in general, Christian said he supports them for higher-level university employees, such as deans or vice presidents on up.
"I think that's a discussion that's still ongoing," he said.