Earlier this month, the University of Montana president's office reflected the campus' transitional moment. Most of the shelving around the president's desk was empty, and the whole room in the corner of Main Hall had a bare look, save for two vases of flowers next to a window. The emptiness seemed odd, given that outgoing President Royce Engstrom still had two weeks until he was scheduled to step down—as far as most people on campus knew.
"This is an unexpected start," interim President Sheila Stearns explained from her chair at the president's conference table. "Because I did start Monday. Whether I'm getting paid for it or not, I don't even know."
That was Dec. 16, and details such as pay dates were still being sorted out. An abrupt change in leadership at the tumultuous flagship university had just become still more abrupt, with Stearns' start date moved up three weeks from a previously scheduled Jan. 1 takeover. Breaking that schedule, the keys to campus were in fact handed over just eight business days after Engstrom, under pressure from Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian, agreed to resign.
The Commissioner's office describes the hurried handoff as evidence of a "very smooth" transition, the result of a series of meetings between Christian, Stearns and Engstrom. "We were able to complete it sooner than we had left room for in our estimation," Deputy Commissioner Kevin McRae says.
The change also underscores how quickly the decision was made to push out Engstrom midway through the academic year and with a legislative session looming. Beyond lining up Stearns, who says she was offered the interim job less than 48 hours before the Dec. 1 resignation announcement, state and campus officials have been figuring out many of the next steps on the fly.
Stearns' expedited start date, for instance, was not announced to campus, and Engstrom's biography was still featured on the President's web page as of press time. The Board of Regents will be asked to approve Stearns' contract at its next meeting.
Stearns says the hurried handoff came at Engstrom's suggestion, after he pointed out some "really key meetings" that Stearns ought to attend. Engstrom, in an email, said he wanted to "eliminate any confusion as to who is in charge at UM."
Engstrom remains on contract through June 30 and will be paid the remainder of his $309,000 annual salary.
Then there's the issue of the president's residence. University system policy requires the president to live in the campus-owned mansion on Gerald Avenue. The Engstroms will move out in January, "so they did not have to move over the holidays," McRae says. When or whether Stearns and her husband will move in, neither she nor McRae is sure.