ST. GEORGE — Utah higher education officials voted Friday to raise the salaries of all eight public college and university presidents, and approved a study that could boost their paychecks even more.
Lawmakers warned the action could cause problems for the state's higher education system in the next legislative session.
During a meeting at Dixie State College, the Utah Board of Regents voted unanimously to give immediate salary increases to public university and college presidents. While those increases added up to just over $100,000 overall, the board also voted to conduct a more comprehensive study of Utah president salaries compared with counterparts across the country.
Officials said Utah's school presidents are between 20 to 30 percent behind the national salary averages. Regents Chairman David Jordan said president salaries will become an issue in retaining school presidents.
Former University of Utah President Michael Young left the state last year to take a job as president of the University of Washington, making $550,000 a year. The current salary for the U. president position is $348,403. These salaries do not include a list of incentives and compensation many presidents expect, such as free housing and side budgets.
"We compete with institutions from around the country. This is a true capitalist market where there is a supply and demand," Jordan said. "If you want to be able to attract the best talent and best leaders in this country, you have to be in striking range" of their salaries.
The current small increases have come out of the eight institution budgets, Jordan said. But in these tough economic times, will lawmakers be in the mood to even discuss presidential raises?
"What they're doing in another state is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned," said Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who is chairman of the House Education Committee. He said higher education officials need to understand that everyone in Utah is struggling financially.
"There are thousands of vocations I can think of in Utah that are under the national average," Wright said. "I have not seen the performance and quality of the presidents that is comparable with what they're paid. ... I don't think one person in this state is going to go to a specific college just because of its president."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he met with Jordan about the raises Thursday and questioned whether "that is the message we want to send to some of our employees, that they're not worth any more but their presidents, who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, are."
Waddoups said now that the increase has been approved, the state's higher education system will have a tough time getting more money from lawmakers next session.
"Any request will be looked at with a jaundiced eye," the Senate leader said, suggesting that if there's money available for pay hikes, maybe the Legislature should have cut more from the budget last session.
There may also be new interest, Waddoups said, in looking at changing how higher education is governed. In the past, lawmakers have talked about various options, including doing away with the board of regents. "All this does is add fuel," he said.
Jordan said president salary raises is not a legislative concern because presidents are not paid directly by the Legislature, but are paid from each institution's budget. Wright responded that while the Legislature has no direct control over presidential salaries, they will be aware of it when they are asked to budget more money.
"Just don't come back to us whining and saying they don't have money for programs," Wright said.
The Board of Regents approved the hiring of a special consultant who will conduct a national salary and compensation comparison to Utah's salaries. Results from the study will be presented in May of next year, putting the results release several months beyond the Utah Legislature's session. This means lawmakers will not be able to consider the study's findings while it is working on establishing the higher education budget.
Jordan called the recent raises "a step in the right direction" in keeping Utah competitive with other states, and keeping the state's current presidents in place. However, he said it is only a small step and that more needs to be done.
But the money has to come from somewhere. When asked if future salary increases would impact student tuition, fees, or faculty at Utah's schools, Jordan said the raises would not be of the size that would have an impact on those costs.
"Absolutely it will, what grade did he go to? That's third grade math," Wright said, adding the money for president raises will have to come from somewhere.
"The Legislature will not give more just because they need a higher paid president. So, they're going to have to take it out of the money they have for other programs."
Wright said he is also skeptical of the regents' study. "Let's be honest, doing the study is to justify their raise, but everybody is broke," he said.
Jordan said he has confidence lawmakers will understand the situation. "We'll be in close contact with the Legislature to let them know what we're doing."
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, did not comment on whether the raises were justified.
"This is the reason we have a board of regents," Isom said. "That is their decision to make and our office is not going to second-guess it. They will have to accommodate their actions within existing budgets."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche