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University Of Montana Blindsided By Engstrom's Departure

 Comissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian
Edward O'Brien

The University of Montana was blindsided with today's announcement that UM President Royce Engstromwas stepping down from his position in four weeks.

It’s not entirely clear if Engstrom was asked to leave or if the decision was his alone.

“You know, I started the conversation, but I think we’ve come to this decision together," Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said. "I just told him I’m at a spot where I want to consider where we’re at on leadership at the University of Montana.”

Christian said that conversation started about three weeks ago.

Engstrom was named UM's 17th president in the fall of 2010.

He led the university during one of the most challenging periods in its history. During his tenure, UM faced accusations of uninvestigated sexual assaults that led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. A former quarterback was charged with rape, expelled, reinstated, suspended from the team and eventually acquitted at trial.

That quarterback, Jordan Johnson, filed a claim accusing UM of mishandling the investigation and won a $245,000 settlement.

Engstrom earned scorn from some for firing the football coach and athletic director during that investigation.

The news of Engstrom's departure was met with a range of emotion. Some, like UM student body president Sam Forstag, describes it as shocking and regrettable.

“It was some of the toughest news I’ve received in a long time, to hear that President Engstrom is going," Forstag said. "I genuinely have the utmost respect for everything President Engstrom’s done. If there’s anything you can fault him for, it’s for his scrupulousness in the way he ran this university.”

More recently, Engstrom’s faced pressure amidst a 22 percent enrollment decline since 2010. During the same period, Montana State University’s enrollment increased by almost the same amount.

Almost 200 UM faculty and staff positions were eliminated last year.

“Everyone, I think, wishes President Engstrom the best," UM pharmacy professor Doug Coffin said. "He’s a good man. There’s no doubt about that. His performance as president was…was, you know – fair.”

Engstrom steps down on December 31st.

A national search for UM's next president begins immediately.

Sheila Stearns, who was Montana’s former Commissioner of Higher Education from 2003 to 2012, will step in as UM’s interim president.

Commissioner Christian says no changes will be made to Royce Engstrom’s administrative cabinet.

“The president has done a lot to strengthen that cabinet and their spots are secure. (They’re) not tied to the president’s position whatsoever," Christian said. "They’re on their own separate contracts.”

The commissioner’s office noted at the most recent Board of Regents meeting last month that UM is still overstaffed. Officials say the university spends more than 80 percent of its budget on personnel compared to a university system-wide average of 68 percent.

"But that's not suggesting that there will be program cuts or not. I don’t believe we can cut our way out of any situation," Christian said. "I think it needs to be a cohesive conversation that includes faculty and includes students on where those priorities will lie. And I think they will do that.”

At least one UM faculty member wants more open and cohesive dialogue between Helena, UM administration, faculty and students. But professor Mehrdad Kia will believe it when he sees it.

He noticed that President Engstrom did not announce his own departure. He sees that as another example of the University system’s top-down approach to governance.

“Which troubles me. I think the way this has been handled has been most unprofessional," Mehrdad said. "That makes me very sad about the situation. But as change takes place, it creates opportunities for us to move forward because this university needs to move forward.”

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christianbelieves history will kindly judge Royce Engstrom’s years at the helm of UM. Christian rattles off a list of Engstrom’s accomplishments; he says they include making UM a national leader in sexual assault prevention efforts, not to mention helping to bring in record levels of research dollars and scholarship donations.

“I think history will say he did have a challenging time – was dealt some tough cards," Christian said. "I think he dealt with them well. I know for certain that he showed up for work and did the absolute best that he could to see the university prosper and that’s all we ever asked of him.” 

We wanted to interview Royce Engstrom for this story, but his office said he would not issue any comment during time of publication.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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