A full professor at the University of Montana earned on average $81,838 last school year, a healthy salary in the Treasure State but not as big as a paycheck from the other flagship, according to recently updated data from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
At Montana State University, a full professor earned on average $100,914, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education data from the 2017 to 2018 school year.
Of course, neither flagship's professors earn as much as counterparts in other states. On average, professors at public doctoral institutions earn $141,314, according to recent data for the 2018-2019 school year from the American Association of University Professors.
Union leaders in Missoula said the disparities in Montana aren't new and deserve closer examination, but a state higher education spokesperson said the comparisons are meaningless without more data points.
Tracy Ellig said salary comparisons need more context. Ellig is serving as a representative for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education during the Montana Legislature.
"The institutions are sufficiently different in their focus that a comparison by rank isn’t useful. These are apples and oranges," said Ellig, also vice president of communications for MSU.
Ellig attributed some of the difference to engineering growth at MSU and noted the average salary for a full professor of engineering is $112,000.
Paul Haber, president of the University Faculty Association at UM, said the union would like to drill into the data to better understand the discrepancies. The Chronicle notes it pulls figures from a U.S. Department of Education database.
"They have more people they have to pay (at MSU), but they got a whole lot more money to do it with," Haber said.
Cassie Hemphill, president of the Missoula College Faculty Association, said the pay for employees she represents has long been a problem, and she believes the survey reflects UM's priorities.
"It seems the choice that the University of Montana has made is to invest in administration, but not in faculty and staff," Hemphill said. "And those are the frontline people that students see."
Earnings gap widens
The earnings gap at the flagships used to be slight, just $1,163 in the 2003-2004 academic year, with full professors at MSU a hair ahead, according to the Chronicle.
A decade ago, a full professor at UM earned $75,965 on average, and a full professor at MSU made $78,717, according to the Chronicle.
Since then, the gap has widened, with the exception of the 2012-2013 school year when UM professors earned $74,799 compared to $67,986 for MSU, according to the Chronicle report.
This year, an associate professor at UM is behind not only MSU, but also Montana Tech and MSU-Billings. At UM, that faculty member earns $65,347; at MSU-Billings, $69,041; at Montana Tech $72,306; and at MSU, $76,651, according to the Chronicle.
However, Ellig said in the same time period, "the workforce and salary expenditure infrastructure changed substantially" at the flagships, and engineering drove strong growth at MSU.
MSU has 825 full-time-equivalent faculty compared to UM's 571 based on current operating budgets, he said. And at one point, he said MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering was the largest and fastest growing college, and it may still be.
So comparisons of average salaries by rank and not discipline become apples to oranges over time, he said, and he sees no evidence of one institution losing or gaining ground from the data.
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Indeed, Haber said the union wants to see more specific salary breakdowns for both flagships, and already has broached a discussion on the matter with the administration and Commissioner's Office. The data from the Chronicle does not show a comparison of salaries by departments or disciplines.
"We are interested in this and have initiated a conversation with the institution and OCHE to learn more about what explains the discrepancies," Haber said.
Through 2016, he said specific salaries were available through UM's budget book, but not anymore. He also said MSU has never made detailed salary information available.
Haber said the union plans to do its homework to find the reasons for the gaps and also learn whether salaries at MSU's engineering school are in fact the main driver.
"Maybe that's all there is to it. But we'd like to see more data to make sure that that really is what the case is," Haber said.
UM has been addressing a budget shortfall, and instructional budget metrics from fall 2018 show a wide range of average target salaries by department. At the high end, for example, the target average salary for a full-time faculty member in management information systems in the College of Business was $125,622, according to data from the flagship; on the low end, it was $64,940 for a music faculty member in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
At Missoula College and nationally, Hemphill said the situation for faculty members ranked on the lower ends, such as adjuncts, has hit a crisis. She said disparity exists between institutions, but also between professors on the main UM campus and contract faculty at the college.
"Administrators across the country have seen adjuncts as a way to balance their budgets. So they do that by offering the very least amount of money possible," Hemphill said.
She said the issue means many students are learning from faculty members who are themselves deeply struggling. She said the solution is for administrators to listen to union leaders with an open mind, and implement strategic plans that solve the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug or leaving it for the next leadership team.
"The solution is for the administration to give more than lip service to shared governance," Hemphill said.
Hemphill earlier discussed the high rate of adjunct faculty at Missoula College — a rate that breaks policy — and the strategic plan the union presented to the administration to shore it up over several years. The plan is on hold until UM hires a new dean for the college.
Since 2011, enrollment has surged at MSU and dropped at UM, giving the Bozeman flagship a beefier budget and causing financial headaches in Missoula.
But UM has been trying to increase enrollment, and Haber said he believes that when the campus succeeds in boosting student numbers through recruitment and retention, and therefore boosting its budget, response from the institution and Commissioner's Office will include addressing faculty salary discrepancies.
At the same time, he pointed out a couple of reasons faculty at MSU may be paid higher salaries.
For one, the campus recently earned the top Carnegie R1 research designation, and he said a school gearing up to hit that mark might reasonably have been investing in faculty as it recruited instructors.
"They had the money to do it," Haber said.
He also noted Bozeman is "a much more expensive place to live than is Missoula," and both campuses likely have failed searches because of the gap between pay and the cost of living.
In the third quarter of 2018, the median sales price of a single-family house in Gallatin County was $414,000, according to the 2019 Economic Profile of Gallatin + Park Counties Montana compiled by the Prospera Business Network.
The median price of a home in Missoula County is $290,000, according to a recent report from the Missoula Organization of Realtors.