In January, the Board of Regents approved a two percent increase for the salaries of the highest paid professionals in the Montana University System. Along with the increase, a “longevity bonus” of $500,000 is being offered to the presidents and commissioners of University of Montana and Montana State University. Considering the 201 jobs eliminated from UM this year, these raises do not reflect the financial status of all Montana universities. UM President, Royce Engstrom, will have his salary increased to $309,207 in the next year while many of his staff are going to lose their jobs. The Board of Regents’ decision to allocate tuition and tax dollars toward large bonuses was irresponsible amid the financial turmoil Missoula is dealing with. As taxpayers in Montana and students paying tuition at MSU, we must let the Board of Regents know that we do not agree with their delegation of our tax and tuition dollars.
Knowing that Montana professors are underpaid compared to their national counterparts, it is conceivable that the raises and bonuses are a sort of incentive for administrators to stay with the universities. However, the paychecks of the top-earners should reflect the salaries of tax-paying Montanans, who also earn less than the national average. University employee salaries come from taxes and tuition. Therefore, if the university employees are earning more money, it should be because all Montanans are earning more money. On the same note, those Montana salaries pay for tuition as a student. The faculty salaries, the tuition and the income of Montana residents should all be in accord. It is illogical to incentivize university faculty with lofty bonuses, especially if the bonuses are artificially bolstered and do not reflect the financial status of the university or the state residents.
Fewer students are attending UM, which may be due in part to the sexual assault cases that gave Missoula the nickname “the Rape Capital of America.” The drop in enrollment caused UM’s $10-12 million deficit this year. One could imagine why Engstrom would decide to cut programs. However, the effects of cutting programs impact more than just the university’s budget. Montanans and students alike will suffer hugely because of the lack of educational resources. The lack of programs will force current students as well as future in-state students to spend more money in order to study elsewhere. Potential students take their knowledge, innovations and future careers with them, thereby stunting the development of our state. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: fewer programs, fewer opportunities, fewer students. Public universities exist to provide financially accessible education to the residents of their state. In order to accomplish this, classes must be readily available. Even with a drop in enrollment, UM should have been more creative with solutions for overcoming their budget deficits and considered the effect they would have on the community as a whole. The raises and bonuses offered to the university elite do not reflect the heavy burden our state will carry for the decrease in educational programs.
Along with cutting jobs, the University of Montana plans to overcome their budget deficit by eliminating $2 million of tuition waivers in the years to come, justifying its decision by citing one of the lowest tuition rates in the country for resident students. Even with low tuition, 54 percent of UM undergraduates take out loans in their first year, still higher than when compared to the 47 percent of MSU undergrads who do the same. How would students feel knowing that their debt funded a $500,000 bonus for a president they have probably never met? The higher-ups in a university should not benefit from their students going into debt, and the enrollment of a university ought not to depend on the affluence of their applicants. By reducing scholarships, UM blatantly disregarded its duty to make education financially accessible to taxpayers. Similarly, by allocating large bonuses, the Board of Regents disrespected the tuition dollars of all Montana students.
What happens in Missoula generally goes unnoticed in Bozeman, but we are not immune to bureaucratic trumpery. After all, the Board of Regents makes financial decisions for all Montana universities. It could just as easily allocate precious funds to non-educators making poor bureaucratic decisions here at MSU. As students and, even more so, as state residents, we fund these universities and the salaries of their personnel. Montanans and students alike can make their opinions known by pressuring the Board of Regents to emphasize better budgeting in the future. Write a letter, make a phone call. Take your money elsewhere. Whatever you do, let the Board of Regents know that your tuition money should not be spent on big bonuses.