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Utah Board of Regents rolls back salary increases after governor’s reaction

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SALT LAKE CITY — The governor spoke about backing off raising salaries of Utah's higher-ed presidents, and Monday morning the Utah Board of Regents showed they listened.

In a special teleconference meeting, the board unanimously voted to roll back its earlier decision to give raises to Utah's eight college and university presidents.

The move comes a week after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sent a letter to the regents, asking them to put off the voted raises until a comprehensive salary study is completed next spring. "As you conduct that analysis, I trust you will also be sensitive to our current economic climate and state budgetary constrains," Herbert wrote.

Citing concern that the salaries of Utah's presidents were slipping to about 30 percent below national president salary averages, regents last month passed raises ranging from 3 to 11 percent. The move sparked angry reaction from some lawmakers, who accused higher education officials of being tone-deaf to Utah's, and the nation's, fragile economic climate, and the fact that many university and college employees have not seen raises in many years.

Regents Chairman David Jordan defended the move, saying in order for Utah to recruit the best and most talented college leaders, the state needs to be competitive.

Shortly after the vote on Monday, Jordan told the Deseret News that he knows that Utah's current presidents have been contacted by by recruiters from several out-of-state institutions. "We do hear from presidents, not infrequently, about the contacts they receive from head hunters from other institutions," Jordan said. "We have presidents that could almost double their salaries tomorrow if they wanted to."

Herbert has said he is supportive of a comprehensive salary study to show where Utah presidential salaries need to be.

Jordan said the current search for a new University of Utah president could be a "market test" on what kind of candidates Utah can attract.

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. Often, university presidents also receive other incentives and compensation, such as performance bonuses, housing and special budgets.

"Utah has never been at the top of the pay scale," Jordan said. "I don't ever expect us to lead the pack on salary, but we certainly need to do something more competitive than we currently are."

Some lawmakers, such as Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, have openly questioned the value of college presidents for how much they get paid.

On Monday, Waddoups called the raise rollback "a wise decision," given these tough economic times.

He praised Utah's college presidents for showing their dedication to Utah students and their faculty. "The timing probably didn't send a good message to the higher-ed community, some of whom are being asked to do more with less," Waddoups said.

After the political backlash, five of Utah's eight higher-ed presidents quickly announced they would be donating their salary increases to scholarship funds.

Jordan said presidents are responsible for setting the direction of a school, raising funds for buildings and research, and creating innovative policies to improve the education of students. "The president is where the rubber meets the road," he said.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg said the regents will call for bids by consultant agencies and should have the salary study underway by the beginning of 2012. Officials expect to have the salary study completed sometime between April and May. At that time, the issue of president salaries will be raised again.

Waddoups was lukewarm toward the salary study, but called it a "good preparatory step." Bottom line, Waddoups said that while "it's not Ivy League," a salary of between $300,000 to $400,000 should be enough of a "living wage" for Utah's college presidents.

"We've heard about salary increases from the NBA all of the time, and now look at the mess they're in," Waddoups said.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com