Mercer takes over as chairman of regents


HELENA - John Mercer culminated a sometimes tumultuous 2 years on the state Board of Regents by becoming its chairman Friday, saying he's changed from the persistent critic to faithful fan of higher education.

The former legislator said he is less disparaging because he has seen a growing willingness of Montana university system leaders to embrace some of his ideas. The regents and other higher education officials recognize the greater role campuses can play in economic development and accept the notion that the board can have more of a hand in managing the system, he said.

Mercer acknowledged he came to the board with ''guns blazing,'' questioned almost everything the regents did and stirred some opposition from other members. At one point in November 2002, he said the board was out of touch with Montanans and did not understand its duty was to be more active in management decisions.

''I really felt we were so much on the wrong track that ... I may have put a bump or two in the road that was not absolutely necessary,'' he said Friday. ''But I felt it was and still feel that it was, in order to change the direction.

''Now that I believe we are changing direction, I haven't felt the need to pick on and point out every problem that comes across my mind,'' he added,

Mercer, 46, replaces Ed Jasmin as chairman. Jasmin's term ends Feb. 1, and that gives Gov. Judy Martz the chance to appoint a fourth member to the seven-person board and solidify Mercer's majority.

Martz has appointed two other members, Lila Taylor of Busby and Christian Hur of Missoula, since taking office three years ago.

Mercer took over leadership of the board last May when he orchestrated a coup of sorts against his most frequent opponents. Richard Roehm of Bozeman was ousted as chairman in favor of Jasmin, and Vice Chairman Lynn Hamilton of Havre was replaced with Hur, one of Mercer's most steady allies.

Roehm warned then that the change would result in a more political board and increased micromanagement of the university system. But on Friday, Roehm was conciliatory.

''Elections are times to chart new directions and abide by the will of the majority,'' he said, recommending the board unanimously endorse Mercer as chairman and avoid any arguments.

''We're on a roll,'' Roehm said. ''We don't need power struggles to divert us. We need cohesion and cooperation on this board. We need to work together.''

Mercer couldn't resist joking about his reputation as antagonistic toward higher education.

''To those of you in higher education, this may seem like a dream, but it's not. It's real,'' he said.

In a later interview, Mercer said his remark recognized his chairmanship may seem like a nightmare to his critics, but he vowed to push a ''more positive agenda.'' He believes most of those people have changed their perception of him and appreciate the board has less confrontation and fewer battles than earlier in his tenure.

''The reason the guns aren't blazing as much now is because things are going in a way that I think is an appropriate way,'' Mercer said.

''We're taking more control over the things that can really affect our destiny as a university system - that is, generating economic activity in Montana to support the system and provide the jobs for graduates,'' he said. ''The regents are taking a greater responsibility for the system itself and they're taking an active position within the leadership of Montana.''

Mercer acknowledged he was an open critic of former Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts, and that he played a role in both his departure and the selection of Sheila Stearns, a popular former University of Montana official, as Crofts' successor.


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