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Murray State board OKs budget with 3% salary increase, moves forward with dining, housing improvement plans

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

This story has been edited to clarify a quote.

Murray State University’s board of regents passed a budget, elected new officers and approved a predevelopment agreement aimed at improving campus dining and housing options during a busy meeting Friday.

Public-private partnership

The board of regents voted unanimously to authorize MSU president Bob Jackson to execute a predevelopment agreement with RISE Real Estate and proceed with the development of a suitable financing model and land lease agreement for a project aimed at bettering the dining and housing options on the campus.

This is the next step in a multi-phase campus improvement plan supported by a public-private partnership – often referred to as a “P3” – to leverage the experience and capabilities of partner organizations by financing the operations of RISE through a nonprofit organization. The nonprofit will own the dorms and dining hall constructed and lease the land from the university. The nonprofit will then share the financial risks of the project and aid the university in streamlining the process.

This process – as detailed in a May finance committee meeting – will begin with the razing of Springer II (otherwise known as Old Franklin) this summer. The first construction phase will include replacing Hart Hall with two new residence halls that can house around 300 people each, the replacement of Winslow Dining Hall, enhancing the outdoor living and walking space in the north campus housing complex and evaluating next steps for Regents and White halls.

This agreement will allow RISE to advance with the creation of design documents for the project.

“This is another project that has been in the works for years and I know a number of different people on number of different teams around the university and on the board have done a tremendous amount of work on,” board chair Eric Crigler said after the agreement’s passage. “Thank you to everyone that’s done that.”

The board is expected to request bids this summer for a nonprofit organization to partner with on the project, with an opportunity to approve the entire project in October.

Budget approved, and a call for increased wages

The board unanimously approved the budget for the coming fiscal year, which treasurer Jackie Dudley said had grown by 7.5% – around $11.5 million.

Total salary budget – the largest portion of the overall budget, Dudley said – is going up $4 million this year.

“A lot of time, months, have been spent on this budget as they are every year,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I’m very pleased with this budget … there’s a lot to improve the university in [it].”

A $2 million contingency remains in the budget, which also contains an across-the-board 3% salary increase to serve as a cost of living adjustment for all university employees.

A group affiliated with the United Campus Workers of Kentucky – organizing to form a union representing faculty, staff and student workers – gave public comments calling for a 10% salary increase as a cost of living adjustment.

A trio of employees spoke on behalf of a group of Murray State workers associated with UCW of Kentucky, advocating for increased wages to keep faculty and staff pay competitive and in line with state of Kentucky’s annual cost of living adjustments.

Associate professor of history Aaron Irvin was one of those who gave comment, saying that wages for campus workers – including tenure track professors – is “lagging.”

“Under President Jackson’s tenure, university employees have already been dealt an 8.7% real cut to their wages,” he said. “Most of us make less now than when we did when we were hired.”

Irvin pointed out that Kentucky state workers are receiving an 8% cost of living adjustment this year and as much as 12% in 2023. The 3% cost of living adjustment confirmed by the board later in the meeting, Irvin said, covers less than half of the increased cost of living and “further reduces wages by a total of 14% since 2018.”

The overall raise, according to Dudley, represents an average wage increase of $1,626. Health insurance contributions will not be increasing with the COLA.

Jonathan Shelly Baskin, the Institutional Review Board coordinator at MSU, called the 3% COLA “wholly inadequate” for the needs of campus workers.

“While the university celebrates not raising tuition and advertises being one of the least expensive schools in the state, workers are told that there isn’t any money in the budget for recurring expenses like raises or benefits or new positions,” he said. “Meanwhile, they see plans being made for future buildings along with the significant recurring costs those bring. When we look at the financial picture laid out in the university’s annual audits and recent bond statements, we see a university that’s steadily slow growing its assets rather than one in perpetual distress.”

Associate professor of art & design history Antje Gamble called for better treatment of student workers on campus, pointing out that most student workers on campus are paid the federal minimum wage, which was last established in 2009.

Later in the meeting, staff regent Jessica Evans said she was “appreciative” of the 3% increase, the single largest increase in a decade for MSU employees, but said she’d like the increase to not be referred to as a COLA.

“It’s not a true COLA because COLAs are based on national indexes that this would be actually considered a salary increase. We [should] actually start budgeting annual salary increases within our budget,” she said. “I know that’s a very complicated thing to do, but if we have the budgets to keep the lights on, our employees are just as essential.”

The last two years, Jackson responded, represent one of the largest two-year pay increases in the university’s history.

“Is that enough? I guess it’s never enough,” Jackson said. Both Jackson and board vice chair Don Tharpe cited the unpredictability of revenue as a major obstacle for budgeting pay increases. The vice chair said managing the university's finances amid ongoing economic challenges will be key moving forward.

“As we roll out of this pandemic, we don’t know what this economy is looking like,” Tharpe said. “We don’t know what the new normal is going to be, but we know now we’re paying more for everything – gas, food, clothing and the supply chain is still backed up.”

Jackson’s contract extended

Board chair Eric Crigler recommended extending university president Bob Jackson’s contract for one year after reading out an evaluation summary on Jackson’s performance, calling him “highly effective.”

Finance committee chair Leon Owens also commended Jackson for his performance during tough financial times amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff regent Jessica Evans listed some areas of improvement that she hoped Jackson would focus on in the year to come, including exploring policies that could enhance or lead to enhancement for faculty and staff and also finding ways to enhance shared governance on campus through committee work.

Jackson’s contract extension was approved by a unanimous roll call vote.

In other board happenings:

  • Board chair Eric Crigler retired from his position as regent and his vice chair. Regent Don Tharpe was unanimously elected as the new board chair. Finance committee chair Leon Owens was then unanimously elected as the board’s new vice chair. Jill Hunt was reaffirmed as board secretary and MSU vice president of finance and administrative affairs was reaffirmed as board treasurer.
  • President Jackson gave some details pertaining to an institutional gift from trustees Karen Jones Squires and Jim Squires. Though no amount was disclosed, he said it represents one of the largest gifts in the university’s history. It will establish the Robert “Bob” W. and Caroline “Carol” T. Jones Internship/Academic Scholarship of Excellence for full-ride scholarships – preferably female students – pursuing degrees in engineering, engineering technology, industrial technology or cybersecurity and network management.
  • MSU athletics director Kevin Saal’s contract was extended through June 2026.
  • Three resolutions of acknowledgement and appreciation were approved for retiring MSU womens’ golf coach Velvet Milkman; the women’s softball team coach Kara Amundsen; and MSU’s track and field team and coach Adam Kiesler.
  • An additional three resolutions of acknowledgment and appreciation were approved for retiring board of regents members, including board chair Eric Crigler, Lisa Rudolph and student regent Ian Puckett. 
  • Enrollment numbers for the summer and upcoming fall semesters were detailed, with both slightly below 2021’s figures. Summer enrollment dropped by less than 200 and fall by less than 70. 
  • A new set of freshmen admission criteria was approved by the board for the 2023-24 academic bulletin, lowering the acceptable GPA to 2.75 on a 4.0 scale while keeping testing optional. 
  • Interim dean of university libraries Christine Ferguson was approved as dean of university libraries. 
  • The board’s general counsel, Robert L. Miller, was reaffirmed. 
  • Meeting dates for next year’s board of regents meetings were selected.

The board of regents meeting can be streamed in its entirety on YouTube.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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