Late last week, the state board of regents voted to boost, by $75,000, the pay of George Dennison, the president of the University of Montana. The move leaves the UM president’s annual pay at about $280,000.

That’s a lot of money, by most everybody’s standards (with the exception of that fantasy land known as Wall Street). But here is the goofy part of this deal: Dennison will retire in mid-August, a plan the regents learned about several months ago.

Apparently, the Dennison pay raise was a no-brainer, at least for the regents. They voted 6-1 to approve the raise. Only regent Todd Buchanan, a Billings investment adviser, opposed the move, saying it would not sit well with taxpayers.

“It’s going to be hard to digest for the average Montanan,” Buchanan said. “The timing is going to be hard to swallow.”

Indeed. When was the last time you got a pay raise after telling your boss you were quitting?

Montana, like the rest of the nation, is enduring tough economic times. Newspaper headlines in recent weeks and months have been dominated by job losses, store closings and state government budget cuts. The regents themselves have discussed the need to cut expenses and possibly raise tuition at public campuses across the state.

To even seriously consider this ill-timed and unnecessary pay hike is to spit in the face of common sense, not to mention to insult students and families already struggling with costs of higher education in our state.

Because the pay move will be in effect for only part of a year, Dennison will pocket an extra $34,000 this year. The higher pay will also increase the basis for his retirement benefits for years to come. It’s not so much the amount of money, or Dennison himself, that’s at issue. Dennison is the longest-serving president in UM history and during his tenure the university has seen significant growth. When he announced his retirement in January at a gathering of students and faculty, Dennison received a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

The roots of the raise stretch back decades. For years, the salaries of the presidents at UM and Montana State University have been set at the same level. When MSU hired Waded Cruzado to replace Geoff Gamble a few months back, they agreed to pay her $280,000, a move that raised the question of whether her UM counterpart should get a raise.

Regent Clayton Christian defended last weeks’ pay vote, saying that parity issue and the need to offer a higher salary to attract a qualified replacement at UM justified the salary hike. Apparently five other regents, Stephen Barrett, Angela McLean, Lynn Morrison-Hamilton, Janine Pease and Robert Barnofksy, agreed.

This longstanding same-pay policy is outmoded. Why should a new president receive the same pay as one who has served capably for 20 years? How about offering the university president a base salary and incentive package that would offer bonus pay for meeting goals in areas like financial management, student retention, on-time graduation, research funding or university-private sector partnerships? Another real-world idea? Waiting to negotiate pay until a new president is hired.

Additionally, a longevity bonus could help retain top-flight administrators, if that is truly an issue. It’s fair to note that Dennison has spent two decades as UM president, while Gamble served nine years at MSU. When it comes to recruiting, it’s important to remember that Cruzado was selected from more than 60 applicants for the MSU job.

There is no dispute that salaries in higher education, whether for administrators, faculty or other staff, lag behind those offered in other states in the region. But that’s a sad-but-true reality faced by almost all Montanans, whether they are university presidents, kindergarten teachers, police officers, nurses or small-business owners.

So what should happen next?

Dennison could decline the pay raise and march toward a happy retirement just as he planned before last week’s vote.

More realistically, the regents should rescind the pay raise and negotiate an equitable salary with the next UM president. That would be a common-sense move that would sit better with those they are appointed to represent, the hardworking residents of Montana.

(6) comments


I hope this UM prez feels real good now. Look real close in the mirrow bub, do you feel this greed, when this economy is in devistation. Don't mind making money for anybody, ya better take a finicial coarse.


The Regents are worthless. Get rid of them and save us the money. This is STOMACH TURNING!! Of course, I'm jaded. I'm a product of the middle of the night, while everybody was gone for Christmas, consolidation of Tech and UM. Tech fought tooth and nail to NOT be incorporated into MSU and after many months the parties that were said, "OK, we won't make you part of MSU." Hooray! Just in time for Christmas break, we can all go home secure in the knowledge that our beloved school will be there when we return, just as we left it. Boy were we wrong. When we returned, to our collective chagrin, we were all now students of UM, period. No ifs, ands, or buts. No debate, no questions, no nothing. The regents just did it. So don't listen to me when I say the Regents are worthless.


NO FAIR! NO FAIR! He makes more money than me. Wahhhhh! Everyone should make the same amount of money! We want the best managers that will make big decisions in our governoment and we want them to be poor like us! While we're at it let's have the government completely take over the university systems so it can be "free." Let's have a Communist revolution! Who's with me???


Great editorial. Next, look into the amount of money the university system spends on frivolous pursuits extending far beyond their actual mission. These wasteful endeavors do little except drive up the cost of tuition.


Congratulations on his raise! Unless you work in DC or on Wall Street you typically get paid what you are worth.


yeah, congrats on the raise. your raise means my tuition is going up which means the chances of me being able to pay to get my degree goes down which means I won't even be able to glance at a $250,000 salary job ever in my life. So yeah, yay, you got a raise which will prevent people from getting a degree. You should be so proud.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.