The University of Montana will award an honorary doctorate in education to Sheila M. Stearns during its May 12 commencement exercises.

The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the request for the honor put forth by UM President Seth Bodnar during a meeting on Friday.

“Sheila Stearns has been an ardent supporter and public servant in education for the entirety of her professional career,” Bodnar said. “Her name is synonymous with education, passion, excellence and service. She deserves this honor, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Stearns served in a variety of senior administrative positions in higher education, including vice president of the University of Montana, chancellor of UM Western, president of Wayne State College in Nebraska and commissioner of higher education for Montana. As Montana’s longest-serving commissioner of higher education, Stearns expanded educational opportunities for Montanans. She is lauded for her effective communication with board members, university presidents and state leaders in education, as well as with the Montana Legislature.

Stearns holds a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision, all from UM.

Stearns initially was nominated for the honorary doctorate in fall 2016, which would have been considered by the Board of Regents in early 2017. But by that time, she was serving as UM president after Royce Engstrom. As president, Stearns provided a steadying influence, working on enrollment and budget challenges, and initiating a program prioritization process for academic programs and administrative services.

Mary-Ann Bowman, chair of UM Faculty Senate, expressed appreciation for Stearns’ service to the University during that time.

“She came in at a very tender moment in our history and brought invaluable insights, experience and leadership,” Bowman said.

While serving as president, Stearns’ honorary doctorate nomination was put on hold. After the conclusion of her tenure as president, Adrea Lawrence, interim dean of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, resubmitted the nomination. Lawrence said she is pleased to see Stearns’ nomination unanimously approved by the board.

“Dr. Stearns is one of our most distinguished alumnae, and her contributions and impact to education in Montana are extraordinary,” she said. “This is a well-deserved honor.”