Raises of $6,400 for the Montana University System's three top paid officials are on the agenda this week for the Montana Board of Regents, as is a $500,000 deferred compensation plan for University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.
The Regents are considering a 2% pay increase for both unionized and non-unionized personnel. For Bodnar, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, that means an increase from $320,122 to $326,524, effective January 1 of next year.
Bodnar was hired in November 2017 to help stem an enrollment decline at UM and fix resulting budget problems, and he fully assumed the presidency in January 2018. That year, he received more than $316,235 in total compensation, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Cruzado received $327,793, and Christian, $326,493 (their total compensation includes salary and other benefits). Both flagship presidents’ compensation was below the national median of $460,000.
The regents are also considering a deferred compensation plan for Bodnar, described in the past by officials in the Commissioner's Office as a way to retain leaders in the Montana University System. Under this proposal, “in exchange for five continuous years of service as President from November 2019 through November 2024, the university will provide a $50,000 annual payment for a 10-year period beginning at age 65 of the recipient. The university may accept (University of Montana) Foundation support in funding the plan.”
Bodnar, selected as president two years ago at age 38, will become eligible for the annual payments in 2044. Kevin McRae with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education predicted the arrangement would be a net savings for the university system. Rather than making the $50,000 payments to Bodnar now as part of his salary, the state will be able to invest smaller amounts of money in expectation of the agreement.
The regents implemented a similar agreement for Montana State University president Waded Cruzado, who took office in 2010 and has presided over substantial enrollment growth in Bozeman. Under that agreement, first adopted in 2010 and renewed in 2015, Cruzado could receive up to $1 million in deferred compensation.
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McRae, the university system's Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources, said that when Bodnar was hired, the Board “wanted to provide the new president the opportunity to come on board, to put his team together and to demonstrate some actions and steps of moving university processes and programs and plans in the right direction, and over the last couple of years now, President Bodnar, in the Board’s view, has done an excellent job of putting a team together and planning and developing and managing University of Montana programs.”
Bodnar's administration has been working to reverse the ongoing enrollment decline at UM, which has lost more undergraduates than any other public university in the nation this decade. Undergraduate enrollment at the Mountain Campus dropped again this past year, to either 5,973 or 6,321 students, depending on the counting method used.
McRae, however, said that several of President Bodnar’s actions thus far — including his leadership team, his administration’s work to improve recruitment and a multimillion-dollar debt restructuring — had left the regents confident in his leadership. McRae also downplayed enrollment as a metric of Bodnar’s success, pointing out that demographic shifts are pushing student numbers down across the nation and in Montana.
Enrollment at most of the university system’s campuses has been either declining or flat these past nine years. The outlier is MSU-Bozeman, which added about 3,200 students from 2011 to 2018 before dipping slightly last year.
Amid this trend, McRae said that “to use enrollment as somehow the metric for either vision or success seems a little bit shortsighted ... When there are challenges for a university to meet in a competitive environment, we should be doing our best to be a competitive employer.”
The Board of Regents’ Budget, Administration and Finance Committee will discuss both the deferred compensation agreement and the pay increase at its 10 a.m. meeting Thursday. The regents will meet Thursday and Friday in Bozeman. For a live stream of the meeting mus.edu/board/ and click on “Meeting Agenda,” then “Live Stream.”