In the midst of a financial crisis, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page approved a $40,000 raise for the system’s top financial officer in January, bringing her annual salary to $205,000.

The raise for Rebecca Wyke, vice chancellor for finance and administration and treasurer to the board of trustees, was approved because she was being considered for a job out of state. Her new salary was posted to the system’s website last week as part of a twice-a-year salary report.

Page said he carefully considered the situation and analyzed the financial impact of losing Wyke before offering her the raise.

“It’s a significant increase, there’s no question about it. And in a time of austerity, things like this come under increased scrutiny,” Page said Wednesday. “Certainly, there are people that will disagree with my decision. I think it was the right decision.”

As the university system’s top financial officer, Wyke is now overseeing efforts to close a $36 million funding gap, the result of flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.

UMaine System spokeswoman Peggy Leonard said Wyke was not available for comment Wednesday.

At the University of Southern Maine, where officials plan to cut three academic programs and as many as 40 faculty and staff positions, Wyke’s 24 percent raise drew criticism Wednesday.

“I find it rather shocking,” said Jerry LaSala, chairman of USM’s Faculty Senate. “In the context of everything that’s going on, it’s unfortunate politically.

“The amount of the raise would have paid for an associate professor or a couple of assistants that work directly with students,” he said.

USM students and faculty have been protesting the planned layoffs of faculty members for weeks. University system officials are trying to cut $14 million from the school’s $140 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Other universities in the seven-campus system are also cutting academic and sports programs and making workforce reductions.

Jules Purnell, a junior at USM who has been organizing demonstrations over the cuts, noted that the protesters wanted top administrators to take pay cuts.

“It makes me quite uneasy that (Wyke) would take that much of an increase at this time,” said Purnell. “There’s a cognitive dissonance here” when one administrator gets a raise while other employees lose their jobs.

Wyke got the raise, retroactive to Jan. 1, because she was recruited and was a finalist for a job at another higher-education institution, Chancellor Page said.

When asked which institution that was, Leonard said she didn’t know.

It was the only “retention raise” approved this year for the system’s senior management administrators, Leonard said.

At $205,000, Wyke is now among seven employees in the system with base salaries of more than $200,000. The top three salaries go to Page, at $277,500; University of Maine President Paul Ferguson, at $249,999; and Peter Pitegoff, dean of the UMaine School of Law, at $212,011.

Four employees earn about $205,000: Wyke; UMaine men’s hockey coach Dennis Gendron; Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Susan Hunter; and USM President Theodora Kalikow.

TRUSTEES SUPPORTED BIG RAISE

Page said he briefed the board of trustees about his decision to give Wyke a raise in an executive session during the board’s January meeting. There was no mention of the raise in open session, or in the minutes from the meeting.

“I feel very strongly that I made the appropriate decision, but I wanted extra eyes on it,” Page said.

Trustees Chairman Samuel Collins said the board supported the decision, despite the financial crisis.

“It’s necessary for us to retain talented people for the hard work we’re doing right now,” Collins said. “The timing is never good, and it’s certainly not good right now. However, we need to retain Rebecca. She has done a marvelous job and she is important to the system and what we are trying to accomplish right now.”

He noted that UMaine’s top financial officer, Janet Waldron, just resigned to take a $277,000-a-year job as vice chancellor of finance for the University of North Texas.

The median salary for a chief financial officer at a doctorate-granting institution was $220,000 in a 2012-13 survey of administrators in higher education by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Trustee James Erwin agreed that the trustees recognized the need to keep Wyke.

“Becky Wyke is really critical to the system’s leadership in moving the system forward,” said Erwin, a partner in the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland. “The market is what it is, and you have to compensate people how the market values them. We thought this was a reasonable step that we had to take for the good of the system.” He acknowledged that it is “very unfortunate” that the raise comes at a time when other employees’ jobs are being eliminated.

“Anybody that has a position taken away, we hate to see that happen. But the fiscal reality doesn’t leave us any other choice,” he said.

Before joining the university system, Wyke was Gov. John Baldacci’s first budget chief, from 2003 to 2008. She was a finalist for the chancellor’s job in 2012.

Leonard said other staff members in the university system’s office received raises within the past year as negotiated with their unions, and non-represented staffers got raises of 2 percent.

PREVIOUS CONTROVERSY OVER pay

When Page became chancellor, he issued new rules for salaries and raises in response to a controversy at USM that led to President Selma Botman’s ouster.

Botman’s decision to give nearly $1 million in discretionary raises to staff members in a four-year period sparked criticism because the raises came at a time of budget cuts for the university and wage freezes for the faculty.

Page’s new rules required approval from the chancellor of salary increases for employees reporting directly to any of the system’s seven university presidents, and for retention or equity raises that increase any employee’s base salary by more than 15 percent.

The current budget cuts – including about 165 positions throughout the system – follow years of shortfalls. In this fiscal year, the system closed a $42 million shortfall. In 2012-13, it closed a gap of $43 million.

Since 2007, the system has reduced its workforce by 10 percent – 521 full-time-equivalent employees.

At the University of Maine, officials announced in March that the Orono campus would cut about $10 million in the coming year, about 4 percent of its $249 million budget, without laying off any faculty members or eliminating any academic programs. The cuts would come from leaving positions vacant and laying off about seven non-faculty employees.

The University of Maine at Augusta has announced $2.7 million in cuts. The University of Maine at Farmington says it will cut $1.65 million.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:ngallagher@pressherald.com