See more of the story

University of Minnesota regents approved a salary of nearly $500,000 for President Joan Gabel’s first major hire Thursday, despite pushback from some members and several state lawmakers.

With the 8-4 vote, Rachel Croson, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Social Science, will become the U’s next executive vice president and provost. Croson, an economics professor, replaces retiring Provost Karen Hanson.

“The package that we have proposed for Dr. Croson is right where it should be for an institution like us,” said Gabel, who touted Croson’s credentials and defended her salary as being in line with top-ranking officials at similar schools. “But we’re not getting just right where we should be. We’re getting someone exceptional.”

Croson was one of four finalists who interviewed at the Twin Cities campus following a national search. The university lauded her work in crafting a strategic plan at Michigan State as the school dealt with fallout from the sexual abuse scandal involving former physician Larry Nassar. The U is developing its own strategic plan.

While Croson’s experience drew unanimous praise, her proposed pay — a $495,000 base salary plus another $20,000 for a professorship — sparked sharp criticism. Critics noted that Croson will be paid more than Hanson even though Croson has never served as a provost. Hanson, who has held the job for nearly a decade, made about $468,000 per year.

Regent Michael Hsu questioned the incoming provost’s base salary during the meeting and proposed an amendment to renegotiate it. His motion was rejected 9-3. He voted against the contract.

“Optically, it’s a really bad thing for us,” Hsu said of the proposed salary, invoking planned budget cuts and faculty reductions at the university’s Duluth campus. “You’re telling Duluth to save $5 million, and you’re paying the new provost even more money.”

Regent Mike Kenyanya, who served two terms as student body president in Duluth, dismissed the comparison of budget cuts at one campus and administrator pay at another. But he voted against Croson’s contract, telling the board it needs to take a stand against rising administrator salaries.

The U trimmed more than $90 million in administrative costs over the past several years as part of an effort to usher in new budget discipline.

However, some regents have argued the cuts largely spared upper management at the expense of lower-paid employees who more directly support students and faculty.

Regents Darrin Rosha and Randy Simonson were the other two no votes.

The eight regents who voted yes heaped praise on Croson as a worthy successor to Hanson. They said they were OK with paying a premium for the right provost, who will oversee a vast array of school programs and help the university execute its strategic plan. Most regents acknowledged the issue of rising administrator pay but felt it was inappropriate to make an example of Croson.

“We can’t impose a piecemeal and I think almost certainly contradictory approach as to when it’s OK to follow the market and when it’s not,” said Regent David McMillan, who chaired the board meeting.

Mina Kian, the U’s undergraduate student body president, pointed out that salary was not an issue when the school agreed to a seven-year, $33 million contract extension with Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck. Kian said she values conversations about affordability but did not think this one was appropriate.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, criticized the board for continuing a “nationwide bidding war that is driving up administrator salaries and tuition costs for Minnesota families.” She and 10 other Republican lawmakers had sent a letter to regents Wednesday urging them to delay the vote.

RACHEL CROSON’S NEW ROLE

As the U’s new provost and executive vice president, Croson will serve as chief academic officer for the five-campus system. She will have systemwide oversight responsibility for undergraduate, graduate and professional education; faculty development, promotion and tenure, and academic and research programs and policies. As provost of the Twin Cities campus, Croson will oversee the colleges, schools and academic units there.