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The Montana Board of Regents' decision to pay incoming Montana State University President Waded Cruzado an annual salary of $280,000 has more to do with the University of Montana than most people realize.

Many listened in anticipation during an Oct. 30 conference call where the regents unveiled - and later approved - a salary for Cruzado that is $75,000 more than either MSU President Geoff Gamble or UM President George Dennison earn today.

When Cruzado, who currently serves as executive vice president and provost of New Mexico State University, assumes her new role, she'll be the highest-paid public employee in the state of Montana.

But, perhaps, not for long.

The presidents at both MSU and UM have always been paid the same amount.

Since the mid- to late 1970s, shortly after the ratification of Montana's Constitution that established the Board of Regents, the leaders at MSU and UM have received equal pay, said Kevin McRae, director of labor relations and personnel for the Montana University System.

Even as presidents retired and new ones came on board, the pattern over the last 40 years has been for the Board of Regents to offer the incoming president slightly more than the current rate and then bump up the salary of the longstanding president at the other university.

However, the salary gap has never been so wide as it is now.

Meanwhile, the University of Montana is wrestling with ways to cut costs in the next biennium. Talks of across-the-board furloughs have UM employees feeling anxious. And hundreds of union workers are coming to grips with the idea of a pay freeze in the next two years.

All considered, it begs the question: Is Dennison going to receive a $75,000 raise?

"We're cognizant that there's a difference of salary," said Board of Regents Chairman Stephen Barrett. "It will probably come to our attention at some point, but I can't speculate as to when."

To add to the complexity, the commissioner of higher education has historically been paid more than either the MSU or UM president, because, in essence, the commissioner is their boss. Commissioner Shelia Stearns' current salary is $211,201.

And, of course, it's the commissioner's job to advise the Board of Regents - the same body ultimately responsible for determining raises.

In 1990, when Dennison was hired as president of UM, his alma mater, he was offered $89,000 - $6,000 less than what he was making at Western Michigan University, where he served as provost. As a Montanan, Dennison saw the job as a good opportunity despite the pay cut.

"I'm related to half the people and I went to school with the other half," said Dennison on Friday, half in jest. "Coming back to Montana was a great thing to do."

At that time, longtime MSU President William Tietz's salary was increased to match Dennison's starting pay.

That has been the pattern for the past four decades every time there's been turnover in the top job at either UM or MSU, McRae said.

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MSU President Geoff Gamble was hired nine years ago. With no turnover in that time, the market price to attract a qualified university president far outpaced what Montana was actually paying its people in the same positions.

For example, the average president's salary in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota is $332,841. That's $127,000 more than what Montana pays.

After considerable market analysis, what the regents offered Cruzado was far less than what public universities in surrounding states pay, but it was an amount she was willing to accept, said Regent Clayton Christian. The salary is an increase of $41,000 from Cruzado's current pay at New Mexico State University.

Nineteen years after getting hired for that $89,000 salary, Dennison now makes $205,050.

Dennison has no intention of asking for a raise, but he points out that both UM and MSU are public universities similar in nature, the regents' expectations of both presidents are the same, and paying the presidents equal salaries is the way it's always been.

"If you try to maintain some symmetry in the state, it seems it makes a good deal of sense," he said.

Performance evaluations could obviously affect a president's pay, but Dennison adds, "I don't recall getting a bad evaluation."

Eventually, Dennison said, he will retire and the regents will be forced to increase the UM president's salary to recruit a qualified candidate, anyway.

Meanwhile, 700 union workers on the UM campus are debating whether to ratify a two-year contract negotiated with the university on their behalf by the Montana Public Employees Association. The contract would freeze pay for workers making more than $45,000 a year. Those earning less than $45,000 a year would receive a one-time lump-sum payment of $445 for full-time workers and $225 for part-time employees.

Anyone making less than $10 an hour (25 MPEA members on UM's campus) would be bumped up to that minimum wage beginning in July 2010.

Since the announcement of Cruzado's salary, "there has been a relatively high number of concerns and questions," said Kathy Crego, MPEA representative at UM.

"We know it has a negative affect on (MPEA) members and their morale to see that amount of money either going to one person or possibly others. On the other hand, we believe that President Dennison over his tenure has done more to support staff than any other CEO or administrator within the university system."

While MPEA feels Dennison is worthy of a salary comparable to that of MSU's president, Crego said she is concerned about the university system's priorities.

Nothing in state law requires that the UM and MSU presidents' salaries be equal. However, the board will likely address the salary discrepancy at some point, Christian said.

Both Barrett and Christian stressed that it doesn't actually become an issue until Cruzado assumes the role as MSU president in January. The board likely will not take up the issue before then, but Christian gave assurances that pay issues will be discussed at a public - open to all - meeting.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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