Montana Board of Regents to vote on pay raises for university presidents

The Montana Board of Regents will vote Friday on a $500,000 deferred compensation plan for University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, plus a 2% pay raise for both Montana State University President Waded Cruzado and Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian.

If the regents approve, all three will receive a boost in salary from their current $320,122 to $326,524, effective Jan. 1.

The deferred compensation plan, implemented again when the regents hired Bodner in 2017, is a common method used in other states, Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for human resources, told the regents on Thursday in Bozeman.

“It was publicly stated that deferred compensation was a possibility for the University of Montana president,” said McRae.

Bodnar would receive $50,000 per year multiplied by 10 years, providing what McRae described as a benefit over the long term.

“By deferring it and giving investment time to work, the cost of that benefit will be substantially less,” said McRae, “In our estimation, it will easily be half of that total cost, depending on whether there is potential assistance from the University of Montana Foundation in contributing to the investment and funding of it.”

The proposed salary increase includes an addition deferred compensation plan of $150,000 for Cruzado, who has significantly increased student enrollment at MSU since she took the helm in 2010.

If the board approved the deferred compensation plan and the proposed 2% raise for what amounts to 11 of the top 13 university system administrators, then Christian and his staff would continue to reach out to UM Foundation President Cindy Williams, whom McRae said “is very interested in what you are considering.”

Regent Martha Sheehy said that while the process of compensating presidents gives her “heartburn,” she would prefer a different review process.

“I feel how difficult it is to not explain the past to candidates,” she said. “However, this is an appropriate measure, given our past and the situation we’re in today.”

Regents roundly praised Cruzado and her many successes at MSU the past nine years. When regents renewed her initial pay agreement in 2015, it stipulated that Cruzado could receive up to $1 million in deferred compensation.

On Thursday, it was unclear whether Cruzado gained some leverage in the current proposed salary process or has been offered positions elsewhere, but many regents inferred as such.

“The amount of retaining talent only escalates by the year,” said Regent Bob Nystuen told Cruzado. “I wish we had an open checkbook to do more, my friend.”

Because the regents must expect what Sheehy described as “great changes” in areas such as accreditation at the national level and a new administration at the state level in 2020, retaining Cruzado is even more important.

“She’s also serving MSU Northern, Great Falls and Billings – and those institutions deserves some stability,” added Sheehy.

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.