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The Board of Regents Should Be Ashamed of Itself

Tomorrow, the Board of Regents is most likely going to vote former regent Clayton Christian in as the next Commissioner of Higher Education in Montana, offering a salary and benefits package worth over $80,000 more annually than the current Commissioner receives.

I have no reason to believe that Clayton Christian isn’t a decent person, good businessman and committed advocate for education. It’s possible that he may be the most qualified person in the United States to be the next Commissioner of Higher Education for Montana, but we’ll never know, because the Montana Board of Regents decided to retroactively offer Christian the over $300,000/year  position without a national search or job posting.

And that’s indefensible. Montana students, who are struggling with crippling tuition and fess, and Montana taxpayers, who are seeing increased tax bills, deserve the absolute best candidate for this position. The logic is simple: if the position is important enough to justify a salary that exorbitant, it’s worth the investment of time and money to find the best candidate.

And, somehow, I imagine that there may have been a few qualified people willing to apply for the position. Perhaps some who have been working in Montana higher education for decades.

The easiest way to see just how questionable this process has been is to compare the 2003 hiring of Commissioner Sheila Stearns and the 2011 hiring of Mr. Christian.

Consider this:

Stearns beat out 31 applicants in a nationwide search in 2003 to become the eighth commissioner of higher education in Montana.

Or these details from the process in 2003:

  • On January 9, the Board met to discuss candidates for Interim Commissioner.
  • On March 3, the Board met for “Discussion and final approval of Higher Education Profile, Desired Qualities for Commissioner, and search calendar.”
  • On May 29, the Board of Regents held a 6 1/2 hour meeting to review the applicants and interview the candidates for the job.
  • On June 17, the Board met in Executive Session to discuss the merits of the candidates.

Now consider the process in 2011:

  • Hey, we should raise this salary by $70,000.
  • Hey, we like this guy who just retired from the Board and he seems like a decent fellow. Let’s hire him, without a competitive interview, national search, or public input.

Finally, Ms. Stearns has an incredibly impressive resume, including:

  • a B.A. in English and History, an MA in History, and a doctorate in Educational Administration.
  • a stint as the director of UM alumni relations and one as UM president of university relations.
  • a tenure as chancellor at (then) Western College.
  • four years as the President of Wayne State University.

In contrast, Mr. Christian

  • is a successful business owner.
  • has a B.A., a level of education that would make him ineligible to become a principal of a Montana high school.

And it was Stearns who had to compete against a field of 31 candidates for the position!

In the end, the Board of Regents has done a tremendous disservice to the University system, undermining faith in their hiring practices and judgment. They’ve also done a disservice to Mr. Christian, because even were he the best possible candidate, they’ve created a shadow of illegitimacy before he’s even begun the job.

Of course, the $300,000/year plus deferred compensation might cushion that blow.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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