Former Montana resident chosen as higher ed commissioner


HELENA - The Board of Regents voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint Sheila Stearns as Montana's next commissioner of higher education.

Stearns, 56, is currently president of 3,500-student Wayne State College in Nebraska. She was chancellor of the University of Montana-Western at Dillon from 1993 to 1999.

The board chose Stearns at a special meeting following a closed-door session

where regents dis-

cussed the final two candidates, pared down from an initial list of 32 applicants.

The other finalist was Warren Fox, executive director of California's post-secondary education commission from 1991 to 2002.

Stearns succeeds Carrol Krause, who was named interim commissioner in January after Richard Crofts retired. Crofts held the job for 6 years.

Stearns begins a two-year contract on Sept. 1 and will make $144,500 per year, the same salary that Crofts made but $8,000 less than her salary at Wayne State.

The commissioner is chief executive officer for the university system, acting as top adviser to the regents and executing their policies.

Regents Chairman Ed Jasmin cited Stearns' Montana roots as a major factor in her selection.

Jasmin said Stearns is familiar with the state, its schools and the Montana Legislature.

''We think we have a very capable commissioner and look forward to working with Sheila Stearns,'' Jasmin said after the vote was tallied.

Stearns received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Montana at Missoula.

She was born in Fort Snelling, Minn., and grew up in Glendive. Stearns became a middle school teacher, earned a Ph.D., and was planning to become a school principal when she was offered UM's job as alumni director and chief lobbyist.

As chancellor of the Dillon campus of UM, Stearns said, she maintained good relations with lawmakers, including then-Sen. Chuck Swysgood, now the governor's budget director.

In a phone interview Tuesday from her home in Wayne, Neb., Stearns said she was excited to return to Montana but will miss the ties she's forged in Nebraska.

Stearns' husband is Hal Stearns, 63, from Harlowton, a longtime teacher at Missoula Sentinel High School. He ended 30 years in the Montana Army National Guard in 2000 as an assistant adjutant general.

Stearns also has a son and two grandchildren in Missoula and a sister in Billings, along with family roots that go back to homesteading days, Stearns said.

''It is an honor and it will be coming home,'' Stearns said.

Stearns, the first woman appointed commissioner of higher education, said she wants the university system to be effective, efficient and a source of pride.

''There is a sense across the country that some forms of education are a drain more than a significant benefit. That can be cured by communication and leadership and listening,'' she said.

Stearns said many states are shifting the cost of a college education from government support to higher tuition.

But she said Montana must work to help students afford higher education through state tuition waivers, support for private scholarships and other means.

A recent shake-up in the board of regents' leadership, led by Regent John Mercer, presents a challenge, Stearns said.

But Stearns said her communication skills will help smooth over any personality differences among the regents.


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