An editorial in Sunday’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle effectively called attention to the importance of paying competitive wages and salaries to university faculty and staff. This attention is a positive sign, as the community newspaper, many elected state officials, and the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education seem to have a common focus on effective compensation methods to support continued excellence in education.
Montana State University has been able to attract amazing faculty and staff at “below-market” salaries for many years. Most of the faculty and staff choose to work at MSU for reasons other than the financial: incredible colleagues, motivated undergraduates, quality graduate students, path-breaking research and creative opportunities, deep engagement with our community, state, and globe, as well as the chance to live in the Last Best Place.
But the university can only be lucky for so long. Those amazing faculty and staff are regularly sought after by other university systems whose budgets and policies allow them to pay far more than what is offered in Montana.
This is not just an issue for MSU, but for the entire university system. State-wide, the Montana University System ranks last of the 50 states for the average wage of tenured, full-time faculty. For these reasons, the Montana Board of Regents have made securing funding to increase faculty and staff wages its highest priority for the upcoming legislative session.
Our students support this priority as well. They have already contributed through tuition to modest salary increases during the past two years – 1 percent plus $500 in 2011 and 2 percent plus $500 in 2012 – with some merit increases and market adjustments. Sunday’s editorial warned how low salaries might affect our students and their success. However, to date, no course required for graduation has been cancelled as a result of a faculty vacancy. The faculty, committed to student success, offer substitutions, additional sections, even independent studies to accommodate student need. If necessary, subject matter experts are hired to teach on a temporary basis.
But again, we can only be lucky to have a sizable local pool of temporary instructors and dedicated faculty for so long. As the editorial noted, MSU has been growing.
Since fiscal year 2011, MSU has dedicated $5.3 million in recurring funds from increased student enrollments for Academic Affairs – that means hiring new faculty to add classes to handle the extra students and hiring new staff to provide additional student services. At the start of this fall semester, we welcomed 37 faculty members; currently there are over 30 additional tenure-track and 16 adjunct faculty searches in progress, with more in the pipeline.
Because of budget realities, MSU has had to find a middle path between hiring new faculty and raising salaries, dedicating increased tuition revenues to some of each the last two years, without funding either to everyone’s satisfaction.
What can be done? The editorial board suggests the Legislature will not help. We hope that is not the case. Education enriches individuals – both economically and in their quality of life. And an educated populace enriches its nation with greater economic prosperity and a stronger democracy. Montana has seen the return on investment in higher education. The Legislature's continued investment will continue to yield positive dividends for the state.
In addition, we will continue to work with the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board the Regents on addressing these important issues. Students have already voiced their support for increased salaries. The Regents have thrown their weight behind this priority.
Finally, the community and its newspaper can continue to make the case for support. The Sunday editorial was a valued step in that direction.
Waded Cruzado is the president of Montana State University.