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Have you ever noticed that when it comes to salary comparisons in the public sector, no one is ever overpaid, and everyone doesn't make as much as they should?

That's exactly what most of the Montana University System Regents concluded when they met last week in Missoula and settled on a bunch of pay hikes, most notably for its top leaders who were are the highest paid in the system. 

It seems like any time a governing body does a survey of how much people are paid relative to their peers in others states, we're always below average. That could be a function of selectively picking the right comparisons, though. It could also be a matter of assuming that salary alone is the only factor when a leader chooses a job. 

Nonetheless, we think university system regent Martha Sheehy was absolutely correct in voicing concerns about the raises. Across-the-board raises seem way too automatic. We believe that if we need to pay the top leaders of the university system, it should be for measurable goals and performance that beats expectations. It should not be automatic because someone did a salary survey.

(Disclosure: Sheehy represents The Gazette in a number of open meetings/open record cases but is not an employee of The Gazette.) 

We understand that qualified, experienced leadership to lead universities and the higher education system is indeed at a premium. But, Montana's Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian will earn just a smidgen below $400,000 per year.

And university officials claim that he's still underpaid.

We also get that the market for these leaders goes well beyond Montana. In other words, we're not just competing for Montanans or against other Montana institutions. These qualified individuals likely have options across the region and country.

However, with leadership like Montana State University President Waded Cruzado and University of Montana's Seth Bodnar, we seem to be doing well at attracting top talent to the state. University system leaders have failed, in our eyes, to make a compelling enough case that we have lost out on talent because it looks like we've been able to recruit very capable leaders.

We also have a problem with the university system spending more money on top leaders' salaries when it has also been willing to waste so much. For example, the University of Montana dismissed a dean of students and gave little reason for the move. At Montana State University Billings, President Dan Edelman sacked a provost only to replace him within a couple of months. Both of these moves had nearly a half-million dollars of taxpayer expense tied to them. 

Maybe instead of giving university leaders more money they didn't ask for, the regents should instead hold them accountable for how they're spending the money they have -- or in some cases, don't have but still spend anyway.

The voters of Montana renewed their trust in the state's higher education system two weeks ago when they overwhelmingly approved a six-mill tax that would support the university system. For the regents to vote pay increases seems like poor timing at best, or an insulting move at the worst.

Many folks in private sectors -- especially in Montana -- have seen wage stagnation or are still struggling to catch up with years of a slowdown. For the regents to rubber stamp increasing pay seems out of touch and out of step with the rest of the state.

With the University of Montana struggling, funding questions lingering and student recruitment uncertain, the regents sure have picked an odd time to pay people more.  

(Disclosure: Cathy Grott is an employee of the Montana University System; Darrell Ehrlick is an adjunct faculty member at Montana State University Billings.) 

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