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DILLON - Montana's commissioner of higher education has recommended a nearly $75,000 raise for University of Montana President George Dennison, who retires in August.

Commissioner Sheila Stearns delivered the proposal to the state Board of Regents during the first of a two-day meeting at the University of Montana Western. Dennison's salary would increase to $280,000 effective March 1.

However, when it came time for discussion of the proposal Thursday afternoon, the seven regents remained mum.

The board votes on the recommendation Friday.

The pay boost would fix a salary disparity between Dennison and recently hired Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, who earns $280,000.

Dennison's salary is currently $205,050.

"For nearly four decades, the Board of Regents has consistently maintained identical salary levels for the positions of president at MSU and UM," according to Stearns' recommendation.

The practice creates stability at the state's flagship universities, according to the recommendation.

High turnover in the position of university president means having to more frequently recruit qualified candidates on the open market, where salary levels continue to escalate, Stearns said.

"That, essentially, is what costs the big bucks," said Kevin McRae, director of labor relations for the Office of Higher Education.

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Clayton Christian, regents vice president and representative from Missoula, anticipated at least some discussion of the salary increase, he said after the meeting adjourned Thursday. However, the regents spent considerable time discussing salaries during the MSU presidential search, he said.

"It's a high level of compensation in Montana," acknowledged Christian. "We're very much aware of this."

At the same time, Christian said he plans to vote in favor of the raise because there's value in establishing parity between the two top posts and it sends a message to potential candidates about the quality Montana wants in a new UM president.

Still, the vote comes at a time when state government is looking for ways to cut budgets in the face of dwindling state revenue projections - including the Montana University System budget - and at a time when state employees' salaries are frozen.

Approval of the pay hike would mean regents intend to hire Dennison's replacement at the same $280,000 wage.

"The board expects the hiring of the next UM president shall not cause further imbalance in president salaries," according to the recommendation.

Dennison recently announced plans to retire in August. The raise, if adopted by the regents, would slightly boost his retirement benefits; it would raise his salary for this fiscal year by $34,352.

Regent Todd Buchanan of Billings wouldn't say Thursday where he stood on the issue, but said he would comment on Friday after the vote.

In fact, the only salary talk during the meeting came when student regent Robert Barnosky encouraged the board to discuss Commissioner Stearns' earnings.

The commissioner has typically earned more than both university presidents.

However, Regents Chairman Stephen Barrett indicated that the appropriate time to discuss Stearns' pay is during her evaluation in May.

 

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