University system needs to raise employee pay, Regents told

BILLINGS Mont.

The Montana university system needs to find a way to better compensate its employees either through better pay or benefits before the quality of education suffers, the state Board of Regents was told.

“If we don’t do something to overcome these difficulties, it will be impossible to maintain the current level of quality” in education, Kevin McRae, director of human resources and labor relations for the university system, told regents Thursday.

McRae presented a report from a 12-member task force recommending actions that could solve the campuses’ problems in hiring and keeping good employees from laborers to professors.

Regent Stephen Barrett of Bozeman said he would raise the issue next Tuesday to an interim legislative subcommittee, the Post-Secondary Education Policy and Budget Committee.

“I’m confident we will make headway and not put this report on a shelf,” Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said after the meeting. However, she cautioned, change won’t happen next week.

“This will guide us for the next two to four years. Perhaps longer,” Stearns said.

Montana State University President Geoff Gamble said he appreciated the regents’ concern.

“Giving employees a glimmer of hope that the board understands and is trying to do something will help,” Gamble said.

However, every recommendation from the task force costs money, in some cases millions of dollars.

The top recommendation was to work with the governor’s office as they craft the state budget and pay plan and seek more money for salaries, rather than waiting to see what the governor allocates for salaries.

Other recommendations include helping employees with housing, day care and tuition breaks for their children, helping find jobs for spouses of newly hired professors, and offering better pay to graduate students.

Erik Burke of the MEA-MFT teachers union, which represents 900 faculty members, said Montana professors statewide ranked 41st in the nation in pay in 2003. Now they’re down to 45th place.

“We’re falling behind,” Burke said.

Montana professors’ pay is low, even compared to other low-income states like Kentucky and Louisiana.

The “dirty little secret” in Montana, Burke said, is that young professors start out earning $8,000 less than the national average. But by the end of their careers, they’re $25,000 behind. That’s causing low morale, high turnover and the hiring of more temporary adjunct instructors, he said.

Such consequences could lead to problems with accreditation and attracting and keeping students, the task force report said.

According to union figures, the pay at doctoral universities like MSU and the University of Montana ranges from an average of $52,532 for newer assistant professors to $75,175 for experienced full professors.

The national average pay for full professors at doctoral universities is $101,360, according to the union.

Sara France, representing MSU’s classified employees, said their major concerns are the high cost of housing and increasing pay to compete in the Bozeman market.

“I feel they are listening,” France said of the regents. “The task force realized it’s a very, very complex situation. It won’t be fixed overnight.”

–Associated Press



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