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George Dennison, UM’s longest serving president, dies at 81

George Dennison (UM photo)

By Martin Kidston

George Dennison, the former president of the University of Montana who led the school through a period of robust construction and enrollment growth, died Tuesday with family at his side, the school announced.

He was 81.

Dennison was born in Illinois in 1935 but moved to Montana in 1936. After a tour in the U.S. Navy, he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from UM before heading to the University of Washington for his Ph.D.

After launching a career in education, Dennison returned to UM in 1990, not as a student but as the university’s president. Under his watch, student enrollment increased 50 percent to nearly 15,000 students while the school’s endowment grew from $17.3 million to $120 million.

“With his expansive vision, tenacity and optimism, he seemed to think the University of Montana could take over the world,” said interim UM President Sheila Stearns. “That confidence was always half-scary and completely contagious. The University of Montana has lost a wonderful champion, and I’ve lost a dear friend.”

During his tenure, UM saw a robust building boom in which the campus added 1.3 million square feet of building space, including three expansions to Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Gallagher Business Building was constructed in 1996, along with the Davidson Honors College.

MonTEC was established under Dennison’s watch in 1991, and additions to other academic facilities were completed, including the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center in 2009, the Chemistry Building in 2004, and the University Center in 1995 and 2001.

“I think his legacy is the bricks and mortar that will allow that institution to thrive for quite some time,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “I never heard George Dennison offer public remarks without talking about society’s responsibility to provide an education for young people. I think he took that social contract very seriously.”

Dennison also invested in education and scholarships. The second “Invest in Discovery” campaign, held from 2002 to 2007, remains the most successful fundraising effort ever launched by a Montana nonprofit, according to the school.

In addition, Dennison launched an initiative to increase retention and graduation rates by better preparing and supporting students. He also led the effort to create the Montana Campus Compact, a statewide coalition to further campus-based public service.

“Life often takes turns we never imagine possible,” he said during his 2010 commencement address. “Always learn something during every stage of your life, no matter where you find yourself.”

Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian had known Dennison for much of his life and called him a long-time friend. He praised the former UM leader for his years of service to higher education, and for that of his family.

Dennison had battled with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. His family is planning for a celebration of life in May.

“I knew him before I got involved in the university system. My father and Jane Dennison, his mother, when to high school together,” Christian said. “I knew him growing up, sort of my entire life, and I have incredible respect for him as a person and leader.”

Stearns is doubtful that another Dennison will come along any time soon. Rare are university presidents who can stand against the pressures of the job, whether it’s success on the athletic field when big money is involved, or nurturing high-stakes research, business innovation and technological advances.

While Dennison may best be remembered as a “brick and mortar” president, Stearns said his legacy goes far beyond that.

“I know a lot of people talk about construction, and he was wise enough to take advantage of low interest rates,” Stearns said. “But he wasn’t just bricks and mortar. He valued academic achievement and excellence. He valued it and conveyed it and was able to step forward and lead when other presidents may have been more suited to stand in the shadows.

“I just join so many friends and alumni in feeling a real sense of loss and sadness. Even though he retired in 2010, it was 20 incredible years that he serve as a fine president and a strong leader.”

 

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com