During an open forum on the University of Montana campus recently, a professor asked new Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian whether his appointment would help or hurt the faculty's contract negotiations with the state.
"I'm hopeful it will help," Christian replied. "I hope it's a smooth transition. There is no hindrance."
Which begs the question: Why can't faculty members and the university system reach a contract agreement?
In September, the state settled contracts that cover most other employees at campuses statewide. But four months later, there is still no agreement with UM's faculty, as well as professors at the University of Montana Western in Dillon and Montana State University-Northern in Havre.
All university employees statewide received the same compensation deal: a 1 percent raise in the first year of the biennium and a 2 percent raise in the second year, as well as a $500 flat fee each year. The money for those raises came from increases in student tuition after the 2011 Montana Legislature chose not to fund pay hikes.
The problem isn't money, though. Instead, the issue is what's known in academia as "compression and inversion."
Doctoral research universities like UM and Montana State University hire faculty at the market rate. When salary increases don't keep pace with the market, then universities sometimes hire new or first-time instructors at a rate equal to or higher than professors with more years of experience are receiving.
For example, an associate forestry professor hired at $60,000 in 2010 earns $650 more than an associate forestry professor who was hired five years earlier.
The University Faculty Association, which bargains on behalf of 525 UM faculty members, estimates fixing the inversion and compression inequities would cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million. MSU has not quantified the problem.
On top of that, Montana university teaching salaries are already the lowest in the country. Class sizes are swelling. Pay freezes have been been in place four of the last eight years. New positions for administrators, accompanied by higher administrative salaries, increase the drag on faculty morale.
"Anyone who works for a living knows that this kind of a situation can make high morale and full engagement much more difficult," said Phil Condon, an environmental studies professor and president of the University Faculty Association.
Twenty years ago, history professor Michael Mayer applied for a tenure-track job at a public university out of state and had to provide his salary information. The school called later that week and asked Mayer for his current salary, not his starting salary.
"That was no mistake," he said. "That was my current salary at that time. It was embarrassing."
Mayer says UM was last in the nation in terms of faculty salaries when he arrived on campus more than two decades ago. And nothing has changed.
Critics complain that university professors make decent wages by Montana standards. Mayer doesn't dispute that. But UM rarely hires from within Montana. Universities seek out the most qualified applicants nationwide, and by those standards, Montana's pay is extremely low.
Turnover on campus only increases the inversion and compression problem. A 2007 statewide task force on recruitment and retention in the university system concluded: "The task force cannot express strongly enough their unanimous view that the failure to improve our recruitment and retention ability will have further and more severe consequences on the quality of education."
In fact, UM faculty union representatives feel that both pay inversion and student tuition increases are unsustainable trends.
"The UFA believes that both of these trends have reached or are very near a tipping point," Condon said.
What's the solution, then?
In the mid-1990s, the state threw money at the problem. In the fall of 1995, $135,000 was allocated to UM to fix faculty salaries that were inverted or compressed - then followed up with another $144,000 in 1996. That came in addition to base salary adjustments for every faculty member and cost-of-living increases.
The money helped shrink the problem, despite some quibbling over how the money was split. Now the problem has resurfaced, though Mayer says it's not inevitable.
If faculty received 3 percent to 4 percent annual cost-of-living increases, inversion and compression would not persist, he said.
"Inversion is a problem," said Kevin McRae, the state's associate higher education commissioner for communication and human resources. "It's a morale buster. We realize it and are trying to do whatever we can."
McRae said contract negotiations are nearing a settlement with faculty in Missoula and Havre, and he considers a February settlement as timely, as he's seen negotiations drag into May.
Mayer doesn't imagine UM faculty will be pleased by the impending contract, but then again, the economy is rough so it's tough to expect much more, he said.
"It would take a huge infusion of cash," he said. "It's not in the cards."
The Montana Board of Regents recognizes the growing angst among faculty on the university campuses. As the regents prepare to draft the next biennial budget, they've formed a task force to hear concerns about pay across the system. That group will gather in Bozeman on Feb. 15 for an open discussion.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy @missoulian.com.