UM search committee to invite president finalists to campus

The Associated Press

The search committee for the University of Montana president will invite three or four finalists for the job for campus interviews, Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian said Thursday.

He said the hiring process is dynamic, but at this point, the committee did not intend to extend invitations to any internal candidates or ones with known Montana addresses.

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and once-candidate for U.S. House of Representatives had said she would apply for the position.

Christian, chair of the search committee, said he does not have a preference for any particular candidate, and he said committee members took votes along the way.

“I’ve never been more serious about impartiality in trying to find the best candidate we can find,” Christian said. “It’s just such an important juncture at the University of Montana. We need a highly qualified leader that can move this institution forward.

“The good news is the pool looks to have that. I was overwhelmed by the quality of individuals we just interviewed. We’ve got a great opportunity for a fresh start.”

Invitations are slated to go out this week to finalists, including at least one woman and professionals with diverse career backgrounds, the commissioner said.

Earlier in the week, a subcommittee interviewed 12 or 13 candidates in person and then conferred Thursday with the larger group of some 24 members.

Christian said the committee will release the names of finalists who accept invitations for campus visits. Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Commissioner’s Office, said he believes candidates will respond by next week, after Labor Day.

The search started with 99 applicants, “probably twice as many applicants as we’ve had before, and they’re good applicants,” McRae said.

The committee of campus and community members narrowed the list to 12 or 13 to interview in person and will bring finalists who accept invitations to campus in September or October. Each will spend a couple of days on campus visiting with various constituents, such as faculty, staff, students and the public.

In recent years, internal candidates have landed at top UM and university system posts, including Christian, former chair of the Montana Board of Regents.

Former UM President Royce Engstrom got the top post after serving as provost at the Missoula flagship; he was among three finalists selected after a national search, Christian said. He said one of those finalists took another job, and a second one subsequently bowed out.

UM also hired Peggy Kuhr as vice president of integrated communications; the once-dean of the School of Journalism temporarily filled the vice president job and served as chair of the search committee before resigning as search chair and announcing her own candidacy. She retired from the post in 2016.

McRae, though, said the university system more often than not selects external candidates, and it hears criticism from people who want to know why it is overlooking Montana talent.

“We go for the best candidate, whether they are internal or external,” McRae said.

The commissioner will ultimately make a recommendation to the Montana Board of Regents, and the board will appoint a new president.

In December 2016, Commissioner Christian asked Engstrom to step down and tapped former Commissioner Sheila Stearns to lead UM as interim president.

UM has experienced falling enrollment, some 24 percent since 2010. However, last summer it hired a new vice president for enrollment, and Wednesday, the administration announced positive trends in the metrics used to track incoming freshmen.