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UM's Interim President Ready To Hit The Ground Running

The Montana Supreme Court has selected Sheila Stearns to lead Montana Redistricting Commission.
Courtesy the University of Montana
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Dr. Sheila Stearns is The University of Montana’s incoming interim president.";

The University of Montana’s incoming interim president, Dr. Sheila Stearns, is stepping out of retirement and back into academia. Stearns will lead UM as it conducts a national search for a new permanent leader.

Outgoing president, Royce Engstrom, has held that position since late 2010. Engstrom’s stepping down at the end of this month amid an ongoing enrollment decline.

Sheila Stearns career spans three decades and includes a record 9-year stint as Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education.

Sheila Stearns: Higher education for me, is just the center of the universe.

Edward O'Brien: Stearns recently visited Montana Public Radio’s studios where I asked her if Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian has presented a plan for UM that he expects her to implement:

SS: No, this is almost too sudden for that. What he did direct on behalf of the Board of Regents is, we don't just want a placeholder. The University of Montana always should be moving forward. And there are so many good programs that this faculty staff, and the president already had in place, that one of the things I'll be doing at his request is to make sure that, whether it's strategic planning or whether it's certain gifts we're working to secure or certain student initiatives that the students are very exited about, that those proceed, plus bringing some creativity to some other indicatives that maybe were just in the very early stages and push those forward because the University of Montana can use them and will benefit from them.

EO: Question on a lot of people's minds at UM is can this institution expect to see faculty or staff layoffs in the seven to — whatever it is — eight months that you are serving as president?

SS: Not that I know of, nor that I expect.

This is a time to be concerned as we've had before, but if anything I think there's more potential now, more donor support, more regental support, more understanding across the state of the value of higher education and of flagship universities such as the University of Montana. I am more optimistic than I would have been in the late '80s.

EO: Commissioner Christian says he selected you to lead UM during this transition for a number of reasons: your impeccable credibility in the higher-ed area most notably, but he also noted that you'll bring a fresh perspective to campus. Tell us about that perspective. When you look at UM right now, what do you see?

SS: My perspective of the University is that it is as vibrant and as deep and wide with rich thinkers and doers all throughout the faculty and staff and student leaders as ever. But what I've also noticed is a negative narrative has sort of wormed its way into the psyche more than I would like to see, and many of us who love the University would like to see. So that's the perspective I want to move away from the negative.

EO: That negative narrative that you mentioned, does that come from a streak — years worth now of bad luck — or is it a media narrative?

SS: Oh, I would say it's neither. I have a masters degree in history and my doctorate was in educational history and leadership, and both of my research projects back when I did them in the '60s and '70s had to do with the University's decades long history. Every 15-20 years, our institution, like almost every institution, can have a downturn, whether it's in enrollment or some fundamental metric that affects budget, that can cycle then into morale. That happens in families. It happens in every institution and board and group I've ever been part of. For example I was telling a group this morning my recollection when I was not associated with the University in the '70s when enrollment dropped through the floor because there was no longer a draft, and a lot of young men did not have to be in school to avoid the draft. It took a couple of biennium for the University to adjust and realize and finally a provost and president had to say 'we have to cut 50 - 75 faculty and staff; proportional numbers, that was huge. The media in our city were full of doomsday scenarios every day. I remember in the late '80s when the regents were saying we might be closing six of our signature programs. Programs such as pharmacy came within a whisker in the late '80s of being closed. The morale was below the floor, it was in the basement, and yet we came back stronger than ever, so no this not the lowest. This is a time to be concerned as we've had before, but if anything I think there's more potential now, more donor support, more regental support, more understanding across the state of the value of higher education and of flagship universities such as the University of Montana. I am more optimistic than I would have been in the late '80s.

EO: What's your role as UM's interim president. In other words, what can you do? What can't, or won't you do during this transitional period?

I'm the president for the next six months or eight months or however long it takes to get the new president. And I'm not going to act as a chair holder. That means that every decision that a strong president should make to advance the interests of our students and our faculty and our academic enterprise in all of its parts, my job is to advance those vigorously and with joy, and I'm going to do that.

SS: What I clarified to the commissioner, to others is, I'm the president. You can call me interim if you want, but I'm the president for the next six months or eight months or however long it takes to get the new president. And I'm not going to act as a chair holder. That means that every decision that a strong president should make to advance the interests of our students and our faculty and our academic enterprise in all of its parts, my job is to advance those vigorously and with joy, and I'm going to do that.

EO: State higher-ed officials say cuts may still be necessary at UM to bolster the student to faculty ratio. How should UM go about that process? From the top down at the regental level as you say, through your office, your administration. Or should it be something a little more egalitarian involving faculty, staff, students?

SS: I just really, Edward, just deny the premise that we need to talk about more cuts right now. Just not even acknowledging ... I simply do not concede that premise. What I do see is that whatever shared governance adjustments we need to make — at least under my leadership — will always be through a process of shared governance. But I don't think that we're going to have anything but really hard work, but very positive work going forward in terms of making adjustments in and around campus that we need to make.

EO: The Montana Legislature convenes next month. Give us a preview of what you expect to see on the higher education front.

SS: What I am learning fairly quickly is, more so than in the last couple of sessions, the state needs to shore up a rainy-day fund. It's had less revenue than it expected, so like all agencies all across the state, every agency is experiencing either cuts or less of an increase to sustain their current service. So I want to delve into that a bit better so I can make sure I can help the commissioner and the regents and my fellows presidents and chancellors make the case for our regions for our universities that the investments we've asked for are really smart.

EO: Tuition for resident students has been frozen for several years now, in thanks to those resource revenues, could that freeze be starting to thaw this winter?

SS: My understanding is that the freeze will at least be flexible. I mean, I used to live in front of the Yellowstone River, and we used to bet on what year the ice would go out. Some years the thaw was early and some it was late, and some years it wasn't complete until well into the spring. So I don't know, that'll be interesting to see.

The humanities and sciences, a classic education will never be passe. It is the foundation of the western tradition from the days of the Greeks if not before. It carries through right to this day. We are so well positioned at the University of Montana to be able to strengthen our liberal arts.

EO: Is a liberal arts education now passé? History, literature, social sciences; nice to have in your hip pocket if you need it, but nothing like what the STEMs offer, or the trade schools offer people who want good paying jobs.

SS: Oh gosh no. The humanities and sciences, a classic education will never be passé. It is the foundation of the western tradition from the days of the Greeks if not before. It carries through right to this day. We are so well positioned at the University of Montana to be able to strengthen our liberal arts. Microsoft hires art historians right out of college. They want thinkers. They want widely-read people. And they're more likely to be entrepreneurs. They're more likely be good in business. They're more likely to fill out and advance in careers, not just jobs. It takes a broad education to make sure that your job is good. Your entry level job, your technical job, and that you do it well, but you'll enjoy it if you have the wide-ranging liberal arts education that goes along with it.

EO: Dr. Sheila Stearns the inbound president of the University of Montana. Thank you so much and best of luck.

SS: Thank you.

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