With Engstrom’s resignation, state university system to set new course for U Montana

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, left, answers questions by media regarding his decision to replace University of Montana President Royce Engstrom. Also pictured is Edward O’brien with Montana Public Radio. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

The state university system announced the resignation of University of Montana President Royce Engstrom on Thursday, saying the six-year leader will step down from the job at the end of this month as the school looks to move in a new direction.

Sheila Stearns, the former state Commissioner of Higher Education, will serve as interim president while a national search for a long-term replacement gets underway.

Clayton Christian, head of the Montana University System, made the announcement Thursday morning, saying a change in leadership was needed for the flagship university.

“President Engstrom and I have been visiting about this for several weeks,” Christian said during an interview Thursday. “I’ve had a thought that we’re in a spot where we’re interested in a change in leadership. We’ve had robust conversations about what that may or may not look like.”

Christian, who serves as the state Commissioner of Higher Education, said he and Engstrom reached the conclusion together and have had positive conversations about the university’s future. Engstrom declined to comment Thursday and referred questions to Christian.

“It’s just the right time in the life of this university looking forward,” Christian said. “It’s my job to look at where we want to be three years, five and 10 years down the road. I think it’s a good time with where we are and with what the president has accomplished.”

Engstrom took over as UM president in October 2010 after serving as provost and vice president for academic affairs. He arrived in Missoula in 2007 from the University of South Dakota, where he served as a chemistry professor before rising to serve in several key administrative positions.

When he took the top job at UM, the school was embroiled in controversy surrounding its handling of sexual assaults. Under Engstrom’s watch, the school developed several new programs and signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which now serves as a national model.

“I believe history will judge him well, and history should judge him well,” Christian said. “He has done an excellent job. UM is seen around the country as a leader in sexual assault prevention and violence prevention. The agreement with the DOJ has served as a model for hundreds of institutions going through the same thing.”

In August, Engstrom announced the formation of a Strategic Planning Coordinating Council to craft the school’s next strategic plan, one that will replace the school’s 2011 initiative known as “Building a University for the Global century.”

That effort, also implemented by Engstrom, saw the creation of the Global Leadership Initiative and a push to increase funding for research and scholarship. Last year, the school received $87 million in external research funding while the UM Foundation raised $53.7 million – both marks setting a new record.

“He’s brought record levels of investment in research, and he’s seen record levels of investment in donor relationships,” said Christian. “The donors have praised the president’s leadership and donated to this university in record levels.”

But despite the successes, UM also saw enrollment slip as much as 24 percent during Engstrom’s tenure. The issue dogged the campus over a number of years, even as the university took proactive measures to reverse the trend, from analyzing its academic offerings to hiring a vice president of enrollment management.

Christian said the decline in enrollment had little to do with his decision to move UM in a new direction.

“I can’t point to any one thing and I’m not going to try to point to anything,” Christian said. “In my mind, it’s the right time for the university to take a step to its next leader. There’s positive signs on enrollment. It’s not anything in particular. It’s about the next generation.”


Engstrom will leave the job as president at the end of this month. A national search for a new president will begin immediately.

In the interim, Sheila Stearns will fill in as president. Stearns, who formerly served as state Commission of Higher Education, has ties to the university dating back several decades. At one point, she served as director of the school’s Alumni Association and vice president of university relations.

Stearns also served as chancellor of the University of Montana-Western and as president of Wayne State College in Nebraska. She currently serves as a senior consultant for the national Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“She brings to the table a long list of success stories at other institutions,” Christian said. “She can help us bridge foundation member relationships and she understands the system. There’s a legislative session that starts on January 2. She understands the process and is intimately familiar with how that works and what has to be done.”

As Stearns fills in on an interim basis, Christian said the Montana University System will begin a national search for a long-term president. A head-hunting firm will be hired to aid in the task, and the university system will form a search committee to help influence the process.

Christian said the process is familiar to the state system.

“It’s what we’ve done the last two searches,” he said. “The last ones had 18 to 20 people representing all the constituents around the campus, from students and faculty to staff, business leaders, alumni and boosters. We’ll try to embrace as many as those different groups and ideas as we can.”

Christian said the process will also include several public listening sessions. The input will be implemented into the prospectus outlining the requirements of the next president.

“We’ll identify some finalists and do some on-site airport interviews, and that will happen in the spring,” Christian said. “We hope to bring somewhere between one to four finalists to campus. We’ll do campus interviews. They were very inclusive the last time, and that’s what I expect this time.”

Christian said his decision to bring in new leadership was not based on any one issue, nor was it based on any immediate need. Rather, he said, it’s intended to position the school for the future.

“We’re not talking about today, or tomorrow, or the challenges we face,” Christian said. “We’re talking about the long-range future and where this institution needs to go moving forward. This campus needs to work together, and hopefully my office can be a part of that.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com