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University regents retreat and self-assess after a leadership rift

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The exam began at 7:30 a.m. sharp. The room number wasn't publicized, but test takers had no trouble finding their way to a second-floor conference room of the new Missoula College building. They were members of the Montana Board of Regents, seven gubernatorial appointees who dole out funds to, set tuition rates for and oversee management of state universities.

The regents were both pupil and professor this day, tasked with conducting a periodic "self-evaluation" during one of the most volatile periods in Montana University System history. A quick review for crammers: Enrollment is plummeting in Missoula and Billings. Two-year colleges are grumbling about being stuck in the shadow of the four-year flagships. UM is leaning on an interim president and provost to identify personnel and programs for termination. Tuition is increasing across the board.

While the causes of these challenges are many, it is the regents' job to handle them. What grade would they give themselves?

The regents didn't produce any document (or even written notes) during their seven-and-a-half-hour retreat. The idea instead, as consultant/facilitator Kevin Reilly explained, was to get them talking. Hinting at the tone that would follow, Reilly, a senior fellow with AGB, the firm also conducting the University of Montana presidential search, began by commending Commissioner Clayton Christian as "highly regarded and respected around the country." Later, when the regents were asked how well they're balancing advocacy and oversight responsibilities, vice-chair Bob Nystuen said, "I think we're doing just fine."

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Nonetheless, the group did identify areas for improvement. Reilly encouraged the board to hone its communications, saying that "the more unified voice you are, the more your messages and actions have impact." He reminded the regents that their meetings are a "media event," and encouraged them to think about the "message" they want reporters to write about.

That was particularly topical advice. The board's last full meeting, in May, exposed a rift among regents that Nystuen described at the time as "really awkward." Regents unexpectedly split 3–3 over whom to name as board chair, forcing heir-apparent Fran Albrecht, of Missoula, to vote for herself to keep her nomination alive. She bested D.A. Davidson CEO Bill Johnstone, who was absent, only after regents Nystuen and Martha Sheehy agreed that Johnstone would have withdrawn his name, because "that's the kind of statesman that Bill is." Minutes later, the regents split again over whom to elect as vice-chair.

Tension over board leadership stemmed from concern by Sheehy, of Billings, that Albrecht, who is involved with the UM presidential search, is too closely associated with Missoula during a "really strange time in the university system." She preferred Johnstone's financial expertise, since the system's "biggest needs are financial." The regents used the self-evaluation, in part, to help smooth things over. Albrecht reiterated that she's "not the Missoula regent" and agreed that "the goal shouldn't always have to be 7–0" votes.

"Are you happy about the messages the media has gotten?" Reilly asked the board.

"I feel like deliberating is the message," Sheehy said. "I think our meetings should show what we're doing, but not be a show."

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