MISSOULA — Sheila Stearns was part of a candidate interview in 2015 at the University of Montana, and she remembers one of her colleagues asking a question.
The candidate was already making more money out of state. Why did he apply for the job at UM?
As she recalls, the candidate was incredulous: “Because you’re the University of Montana.”
Stearns, who has taken over for outgoing President Royce Engstrom, understood exactly what he meant.
“That says a lot, and frankly, it means a lot to a lot of people, and I just want to get that spirit right back toward the front of mind for all of us,” Stearns said.
To lead UM that way, Stearns aims to celebrate and broadcast UM’s academic excellence; govern collaboratively, with clear communication and shared responsibility; and make real connections with students.
“What are we doing to interact with every single student to ensure that they are learning and getting the best out of the experience for which they have signed up and paid good money for?” Stearns said.
On Dec. 1, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian announced Engstrom would depart by the end of the month, and Stearns would take the interim post while a search takes place for UM’s next permanent president.
Stearns said she will not be applying for the permanent position, but she is prepared to lead her alma mater through the following semester – or longer, if necessary, reported the Missoulian.
Stearns, former commissioner of higher education in Montana, takes pride in the academic excellence at UM. She’s already familiar with it, having earned all her degrees at UM: a bachelor’s in English and history, a master’s in history, and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision.
Even so, she’s still surprised as she steps into the president’s role to meet so many people on campus who are leaders in their fields. She just recently met a faculty member in biology who is recognized nationally and internationally.
“I think to myself, ‘There we go again,'” Stearns said. “There is star power all over the place, and I just cannot wait to discover even more and find and meet even more people.”
Sometimes, people see universities as centers of rabble-rousing students, or places with budget issues, Stearns said. As a former provost and chancellor of UM Western and former president of Wayne State College in Nebraska, she sees something different at institutions of higher learning.
“I’ve always thought universities are just such centers of creativity,” she said.
As such, she finds joy in her work at UM, and she’d like to ensure that sense is prevalent for others on the flagship campus.
“Unlike so many organizations, we are helping to create futures, and when you’re doing that, what could be more joyful?” Stearns said.
“But everything we do is hard work, so people can get down if they’re thinking about the challenge of the day and not so much what a student has just learned or accomplished.”
She’s excited to reconnect people with the joy of what a university can accomplish for students and for society.
Enrollment has been an ongoing challenge for UM despite the campus having appeal in areas students and parents consider important: strong academics, a beautiful setting, and relatively affordable tuition.
“I think enrollment’s biggest challenge is to market credibly again in a world which has over-simplified the old definition of STEM,” said Stearns.
STEM traditionally stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. However, to illustrate the new model, Stearns pointed to a poster created in part by director of communications Paula Short. In it, E stands for different possibilities – Ecology, Education, Entrepreneurship, Expression.
“The biggest challenge is to shine a light even more effectively on ourselves as to the science-related fields, the technology-related fields in which we have nationally respected majors, or in mathematics,” Stearns said.
UM has the chance to remind people in Montana not to overlook it just because of some recent negative publicity, she said. UM’s main campus enrollment has plunged 20 percent since 2010, and a sexual assault scandal rocked the school in 2012.
“Our opportunity is to remind people that not all universities that they might even be considering would have nearly our depth, breadth or history of excellence,” Stearns said. “I think that’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Faculty, staff and students have all called for a continuation of shared governance on campus, and Stearns said the phrase has been ridiculed in other sectors.
“Frankly, other industries are learning from us that if they are more collaborative in terms of their governance … they are more successful,” Stearns said. “I’m not saying we in the academy have always practiced shared governance well, but where it works well, it is really honest. I’m a real believer in it.”
It means good communication about important decisions, she said. It means the group has identified priorities for the institution, and it can move ahead together, possibly without consensus, but with a shared sense of mission, she said.
“Shared governance is shared wisdom. It means you are gathering collective wisdom, and therefore, as many other sectors are finding out gradually, it’s much better than just top down decrees because you get more effective participation,” Stearns said.
The shared governance plays out in nuances, she said.
Recently, for example, faculty and student leaders called for UM to proceed with its provost search, but UM opted to postpone the search.
However, communications director Short said because of the input from faculty and students, the search wasn’t canceled altogether. Rather, it was placed on hold. And Stearns said UM had serious conversations with all of the candidates about remaining in the pool as a direct result of the feedback from faculty and students.
“They may disagree, but at least they’re not alienated,” Stearns said of the model of shared governance.
A few weeks ago, the Commissioner’s Office noted UM still needs to get closer to an average 18-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, since it’s hovering at a 16-to-1 ratio.
Stearns said UM will work collectively to reach that goal. She said she believes the budget plans UM made in 2015 move the university toward a ratio that’s closer to the benchmark for a public institution, and UM will continue to make credible progress toward its goals.
She believes the university should be open as it develops its budget and that it should make decisions that value people. For example, take advantage of attrition to make the budget pencil out, she said.
“You have to balance the budget. We don’t have (adequate) reserves. That’s not how university fund balances are created in our university system,” Stearns said. “I do believe in creating more reserves. If I were a long-term president, I would urge that.”
Stearns, former head of University Relations and the Alumni Association at UM, also wants students to have connections on campus. She praised the people who advise students, and she said she wants to learn how to advise and take on one or two students herself.
“That’s a pet interest of mine, and I want to give a lot of pats on the back to those who are doing it really well,” Stearns said.
She’d like students and families to have help every step of the way at UM, from their application to their career path, and she believes that connection is important.
“If all of us do that, each and every student, no matter where they came from – Alaska or an eastern European country or Corvallis – (will) feel valued … and connected,” Stearns said.
Stearns wore a maroon and black polka dot jacket that day, and she’s a Grizzlies fan who wants people on campus to remember not only UM’s tagline, “We are Montana,” but more.
“We are the University of Montana. To me, that’s huge,” Stearns said.