The Missoulian published an article (Jan. 10) stating that 152 employees of the University of Montana make more than $100,000 and suggested that might be wasteful or unfair. The article contained my comments so I’d like to offer another perspective and continue that very necessary public conversation about the future of our university and the nation.
Some readers may feel outraged, believing that the roughly 10 percent of university employees making more than $100,000 are overpaid and that’s a waste of taxpayer money. They say: Starve the beast and keep my taxes low. But other readers may see an opportunity to work hard and achieve the American dream by emulating educated professionals who make both a decent living and a positive contribution to society. They know that a college degree is now the ticket to the American dream because a high school diploma is inadequate to compete in the world economy. The recent business closures in our community testify to that, and to the realization that a bad economy is exactly when we need to invest in educating and retraining our citizens.
However, the university community has also felt the sting of “The Great Recession” where faculty and staff know all too well what “0,0” means: They’ve had no pay raise in four of the last eight years during the “lost decade” of the 2000s. Moreover, while some employees make more than $100,000, Montana faculty salaries are nearly last in the nation and we are dead last in retirement benefits. The faculty and staff wage freezes represent nearly $15 million in salary reductions and now we’re facing another $5 million in budget cuts on campus. The critics might rejoice, but low wages and poor benefits harm educational quality and we must recall that low wages and less funding for the university community mean millions in lost revenue for the local Missoula economy.
The critics of higher ed have mostly had their way with the Montana state government. State funding or support per student has steadily declined for the last 25 years and Montana now ranks last nationally. Our failure to provide educational opportunity is reflected in low median incomes for Montana families. Also, inadequate state funding has caused student tuition to explode, resulting in massive student loan debts that cripple our youth just when they’re trying to start a new life and prosper. The data are clear; the state has not invested in education and our citizens have suffered as a consequence.
We all recognize the need for an affordable, high-quality higher ed system, and Montana already has one of the most efficient. Our faculty and administration, some of whom make more than $100,000 and are also part of the pay freeze, still brought in $67 million of grants or contracts to UM and the community. But the deeper the cuts, the more difficult that task becomes. Starving the beast and rejoicing in frugal state budgets has another side. We must recall that the government has a duty to provide essential services, not just blithely manage a budget. So cuts in education and in retraining our work force can also represent a failure to invest where we should, and that’s a loser in the long run.
Yes, $100,000 is a lot of money, but we hope that many more of our citizens will be making that salary, or even more. Instead of jealously ridiculing success, let’s admire it and work to share it with all of our citizens by investing in them. That is the essence and the value of education in the competitive, world economy. We look forward to providing quality educational opportunities for all Montanans.
Douglas Coffin is a professor of molecular genetics at UM and vice president of the University Faculty Association.