The Montana Board of Regents promised Thursday to freeze students’ tuition and to try “performance funding” if the Legislature delivers enough money to cover inflation and employee pay raises for the next two years.

The regents, meeting in Helena on Thursday and today, gave a unanimous voice vote in favor of the College Affordability Plan, or CAP, a deal negotiated with Gov. Steve Bullock and key legislators.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian advocated approval of the CAP plan, saying the deal has been endorsed by lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate members — on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. He added the agreement has “built some bridges” for the University System.

Performance funding would be a new element when the regents divvy up state dollars between campuses. The current funding method generally divides money between colleges according to the number of students from Montana attending each campus.

Under the deal with lawmakers, the University System in the 2014-15 fiscal year would divide up about $7.5 million, or 5 percent of state dollars, based on how well each campus is doing on graduating students and speeding up the six years it typically takes students to graduate.

“It’s fair for us to be held accountable,” Christian said.

Student Regent Joe Thiel, a senior at Montana State University, said this is a great start, but a number of MSU faculty members are concerned about performance funding.

The details have yet to be worked out. Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner, said faculty would be included in the group that works on performance measures. In other states, he added, credit is given to campuses for “achieving progress,” not only for achieving targets.

Regent Jeff Krauss of Bozeman, a performance-funding supporter, cautioned that “outputs” like graduation rates can’t completely replace “inputs,” like counting enrolled students. Krauss urged finding a way to focus on goals of helping low-income and first-time students and improving Montanans’ lives, not just “pushing more people through the pipe” to graduation.

Jeff Renz, University of Montana law professor and faculty representative to the Board of Regents, warned that raising graduation rates depends on having enough professors. Renz said Montana’s salaries are so low, competing to hire professors in a national market is very difficult, and faculty vacancies have grown to 25 percent in MSU’s math and UM’s history departments.

“The University of Puerto Rico has higher salaries than we pay,” Renz said. Montana faculty salaries are lower, he said, “than every other public university in the United States.”

Board of Regents Chair Angela McLean replied that the regents have made raising employee pay their highest priority and she believes the regents will do more for their employees than what the Legislature funds in the state pay plan.

“I believe we need to do something across the system,” she said.

In other action Thursday, Christian said no to a controversial proposal from the waning days of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s term that called for spending $2 million in university research money to buy rights to dig dinosaur fossils and Indian artifacts at a Milk River ranch, which was purchased by the state despite strong opposition from neighboring ranchers. Christian said it wasn’t clear where the University System could find the money and it was hard to determine the value of the assets, so it wasn’t in the best interests of the system to pursue the purchase.

Krauss agreed with Christian’s decision, saying that MSU paleontologists feel strongly that ethically, “We do not buy fossils.” However, Regent Pat Williams of Missoula said out-of-state universities and museums will probably buy the rights and then, “The Treasure State will have sold another treasure.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailchronicle.com or 582-2633.

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