Several Montana State University-Northern faculty got to take some of their concerns about pay straight to the top of the higher education system Thursday morning, during the Board of Regents meeting in Havre.
The first committee to meet, following a few updates on ongoing projects, was the Staff and Compensation Committee, where Northern’s faculty union President John Snider and Vice President Curtis Smeby kicked off a discussion of faculty salaries across the entire Montana University System.
“This represents a crisis for our institution because we find it difficult to recruit and retain faculty to provide services and programs to our students,” Snider said. “It threatens the academic integrity of the institution.”
Smeby began a metaphor used throughout the meeting of a train headed this way, presumably with the university system tied to the tracks.
“We can’t stay at the bottom of the country,” Smeby said. “While the state has an extra $500 million in its budget, something’s amuck. The whole system is underfunded.”
Marco Ferro, public policy director for MEA-MFT, the union representing faculty, acknowledged the concerns particular to Northern but pointed out the problems are system-wide.
Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said he understood these concerns and said his office and the regents had a place in setting guidelines for which percentage of a university’s budget should be spent on instruction. But he also believes that specific budgeting should be left up to each institution’s president or chancellor.
A few attendees asked whether Montana’s professors lower pay was similar to lower pay for all of Montana workers.
Christian said that Montana faculty salaries are about 70 percent of the national average, while the whole of Montana wages are about 85 percent of the national average.
He blamed a lot of the lack of focus on faculty salaries on decades of new requirements for colleges, from financial aid reporting to Title IX.
Ferro added that the faculty pay being so far from the national average hurts the university system especially because they have to compete nationally and internationally for faculty.
University of Montana law professor Jeff Renz agreed.
“If we’re paying less than any institution in the nation, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, that means we will have to hire candidates all the other institutions have declined,” Renz said. “The trains not coming towards us. Its running over us.”
Pat Williams, Missoula regent and former U.S. congressman, said the situation is shameful.
“I think the situation here at Northern is an embarrassment and a Montana disgrace,” Williams said. “Montana taxpayers should recognize we need to pay them, and, by God, we’re going to do it.”
While some commented on how every institution’s faculty seems to come up with figures proving they are the worst-off institution, Williams said that he hopes the faculty begging “the regents with a tin cup will end.”
Board Vice Chair Todd Buchanan and MSU President Waded Cruzado agreed that the universities need more money, but to get it, the schools have to come up with innovative ways to improve their operations, “not just ask for more money to do more of the same,” as Buchanan put it.
“I feel there is an optimistic attitude on this campus that it may not have felt in some time,” Buchanan said. “They need to take that and use it to reinvent this institution.”
By the end of the discussion, everyone –– regents, MEA-MFT, student representatives –– agreed that faculty compensation needs to be the top priority both in this fall’s state legislature election and in the session next January.