MISSOULA — University of Montana President Royce Engstrom is stepping down effective Dec. 31, as the university continues to face declining enrollments and budget cuts.
Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian announced Thursday that he and Engstrom reached the decision after “careful discussion and consideration.”
“I asked President Engstrom to consider this transition at this time based on my belief that a change in leadership direction is the right step for UM going forward,” Christian said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the graciousness and care with which President Engstrom engaged in our discussion.”
A national search for a replacement will begin immediately, Christian said. He plans to hold listening sessions with the university community to learn the kinds of qualities people would like to see in the next university president.
Sheila Stearns, who was Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education from 2003 to 2012, will serve as interim president.
Engstrom announced his departure to UM’s cabinet, deans and other top leaders Thursday morning in an emotional meeting, the Missoulian reported. Last week, Engstrom had said he wanted to continue to lead UM.
He was not commenting Thursday, his office said.
During Engstrom’s tenure, UM faced reports of uninvestigated sexual assaults that led to a Department of Justice Investigation of the university as well as city police and county prosecutors. A former quarterback was charged with rape, expelled from school, reinstated, suspended from the team and later acquitted at trial. He received a $245,000 settlement after filing a claim stating the university mishandled the rape investigation.
Engstrom was criticized by some for firing the football coach and athletic director in March 2012 amid the rape investigation.
The university has seen a 22 percent decline in enrollment since 2010, while Montana State University’s enrollment of full- and part-time students increased by 21 percent over the same period. Last year, nearly 200 full-time faculty and staff positions were eliminated.
After the Board of Regents meeting in November, the commissioner’s office made it clear that the university was still overstaffed. UM spends more than 80 percent of its budget on personnel compared to a university systemwide average of 68 percent, officials said.
Engstrom sent an email to the campus community on Nov. 22, saying the university would be ranking its academic programs over the next nine to 12 months to make decisions on additional layoffs. Faculty, staff and students held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss their concerns over how those decisions might be made.
Engstrom was named UM’s 17th president in October 2010 after three years as provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Christian thanked Engstrom for his service, noting improvements in academic research and private donations along with the construction of the new Missoula College. He also noted UM’s athletic programs are recognized for their success in competition as well as their increasing academic excellence and their compliance with NCAA regulations.
He also lauded Engstrom for major policy and procedure reforms that made UM a model campus for colleges and universities for preventing sexual violence.