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.