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Dr. Sheila Stearns, education leader and public servant dies at 76

The Montana Supreme Court has selected Sheila Stearns to lead Montana Redistricting Commission.
Courtesy the University of Montana

Montana lost one of its most respected educational leaders and public servants this week.

Dr. Sheila Stearns passed away Tuesday in Flagstaff, Arizona where she and her husband were visiting family.

“Higher education to me is just the center of the universe,” Stearns said.

That’s how she opened herinterview with MTPR in late 2016 when she stepped out of retirement and back into academia as interim president of the University of Montana.

UM at that time was beset with significant budgeting and enrollment challenges. Stearns answered the call to lead the university as it conducted a national search for a new permanent leader.

“She was always so supportive," said Seth Bodnar, who was tapped to lead UM as president in 2018, a role that continues today.

“The unique thing about Sheila is when you were with her you wanted to be the best version of yourself,” Bodnar said.

Stearns served as Montana’s first female commissioner of higher education from 2003 to 2011.

Montana’s current Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian said Stearns’ emphasis on transparency and affordability in higher education will be felt for generations.

“That has really become a hallmark that has ended in five or six or seven tuition freeze bienniums that has made Montana one of the most affordable systems frankly across the country,” Clay said.

Stearns was most recently tapped to serve as the chair of the state’s redistricting commission, but stepped down before work began due to health concerns.

Family was Stearns’ top priority. In a wide-ranging interview with MTPR producer William Marcus in 2020, Stearns expressed her deep love of her family, "Who were interesting, who cared for me and I want them to know how loved they were and how much I appreciated them – always their humor and their intelligence and their kindness," she said.

Sheila Stearns passed away Tuesday due to complications from lung cancer. She was 76- years-old.

The University of Montana will hold a celebration of her life Friday, June 2 at 2 p.m. on the University of Montana campus in the UC Ballroom.

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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