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George Dennison, UM's Longest Serving President, Dies At 81

The University of Montana’s longest serving president, George Dennison, died Tuesday morning.
Courtesy University of Montana
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The University of Montana’s longest serving president, George Dennison, died Tuesday morning.";

The University of Montana’s longest serving president, George Dennison, died Tuesday morning.

Those who worked alongside Dennison during his record 20-year tenure at the University of Montana say his impact cannot be overstated.

UM’s current president, Sheila Stearns, describes his confidence as, "half scary and completely contagious":
 
"When you worked with George, someone would come up with an idea. Because you’re always troubleshooting as a team. Somebody might come up with the; ‘No, here’s the downside risk.’ And he would lower his head a little bit and lift his eyes and say, 'Let’s give it go.' Those of us who needed to implement would say 'Ok, fasten the seatbelts, here we go!'"

Stearns was UM’s vice president when Dennison assumed the reigns of the university back in July of 1990. She says that more often than not, his intuition was right on the money. With Dennison’s hand on the tiller, student enrollment increased by nearly 50-percent, from just over 10,000 in 1990 to nearly 15,000 by 2009.

UM’s former Vice President of External Relations, Jim Foley:

"Here’s the key about George Dennison: he graduated — along with lots of others who worked with him — more students during the 20 years he was the President of the University of Montana, than the entire history of the University of Montana prior to that. That’s a huge piece of business," Foley says.

UM’s campus endowment ballooned from just over $17-million to $120-million during Dennison’s tenure.

That wasn’t all that ballooned. UM also added over 1-million square feet of campus infrastructure during Dennison’s 20-years in Main Hall. Critics said it was too much; that the campus overbuilt.

Dennison answered those critics during this 2006 interview with David Brooks for a University of Montana Oral History Project:

"And so while a lot of people were – have been over the years – critical of building this and building that and something else, that’s not to satisfy my ego. It’s to satisfy the demands and needs of the people who come here: the faculty and the students."

Bob Frazier agrees. He says Dennison’s building initiative was absolutely necessary for that time in UM’s history. Frazier, who served as the university’s Executive Vice President under Dennison, points out there was an enormous demand for more office and teaching space during those high-flying days. He says it would have been irresponsible to ignore those pleas and describes Dennison as UM’s number one advocate:

"I think there were a lot of academic programs that truly began shining and shining even brighter than they had in the past – especially if you look at programs in the health sciences and programs throughout, including Native Studies and other programs across the campus," Frazier says.

But Dennison, like any leader at any institution, had his share of critics. Some said he too frequently ruled with what they felt was an iron fist, so they came up with a nickname: "King George." And it stuck.

Former VP Jim Foley:

"I don’t think it was fair, but people didn’t really know George. In some ways he was an introvert. None of that bothered him. He understood his name was on the letterhead. He understood he was accountable to the state of Montana, the regents and the Commissioner of Higher Education at the time, and to students and faculty. That was his major concern. The rest, to a large degree, was irrelevant to him."

UM’s current President Sheila Stearns agrees and adds that Dennison was fully committed to shared governance:

"When you’re in the presidency – and I know this – there are times you make decisions and if they don’t go the way of somebody, they’re going to just assume that you’re an autocrat, that you didn’t actually listen. But he was a good listener. He was also one to make the decision and move on. I loved the man and admired him and learned a lot from him and I will miss him."

And George Dennison loved the University of Montana. He told the faculty and staff as much during the campus convocation in January of 2010:

"I consider it a high honor and rare privilege to have served as president of a wonderful institution made so by the people who constitute it," Dennison said.

Dennison has a long relationship with UM where he earned a Bachelor's in history with highest honors in 1962, and a history master’s degree one year later. He earned his history PhD. from the University of Washington in 1967.

He was intellectually active right though his final year. The second of his two books, a biography of Montana Naturalist Morton Elrod, was published this past September.

George Dennison was 81. He died Tuesday morning after a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

A celebration of Dennison's life will be held in May.

[Correction: An earlier version of the story said Dennison passed away Monday, he actually passed away Tuesday, Jan 03. We regret the error.]

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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