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Pioneer Editorial: Bad timing for MnSCU pay bonus

Top administrators of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system will receive $416,000 in bonuses this year in a time of deep recession and students paying through the nose in rising tuition costs.

Union leaders cried foul when the figures became public on Friday, as well they should. With base pay frozen for two years, it seems the so-called "performance pay" is only a way to skirt around the base pay freeze.

The latest disclosure comes after the July announcement from the MnSCU Board of Trustees that it was awarding Chancellor James McCormick a $40,000 bonus on top of his $360,000 salary -- at a time when he said he would retire and a search committee is now working on finding his successor. The thought of a golden parachute comes to mind.

In Friday's announcement, 35 top administrators got bonuses, eight of them receiving the top award of $15,000.

Among them was retired Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard, who received a $15,000 bonus on top of his annual salary, which was total cash compensation of $291,191 for fiscal year 2009.

President Quistgaard retired midway through 2010, yet received the maximum bonus. President Quistgaard finished out his career at BSU as an innovative educator who oversaw many positive changes during his tenure, but a public employee salary of more than $300,000 during a recession and tight budgetary times seems a bit excessive -- especially in Bemidji. And performance pay directed at providing incentive to do better seems wasted on someone who has retired.

But we fault not President Quistgaard but the system that allows such exorbitant bonuses during the Great Recession when college affordability is a key question for many families. The same happened last year, with the recession deepening, and MnSCU awarding $287,500 in bonus pay to top administrators.

We know that BSU faces some tough budgetary decisions this year, and the advent of a Republican-controlled Legislature will surely mean no additional funds for higher education and most likely more cuts. With rising tuition and worker layoffs, it just doesn't seem prudent that top administrators receive bonuses on top of what are already high-level salaries in the communities most MnSCU institutions are located.

Last year, some administrators turned over their bonuses to campus projects and scholarships. Let's hope more do so this year.