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UM President Royce Engstrom claps during a transition in Saturday's commencement ceremonies. Over 3,000 Grizzlies received diplomas from University of Montana on Saturday May 14, 2016.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Some 119 years of institutional knowledge will be out the door during the next few months at the University of Montana, according to an estimate from President Royce Engstrom.

In addition to other departures, the upcoming leadership changes amount to an overturn of some 30 percent in the president's cabinet with a series of retirements he says came about without his influence. 

  • Provost Perry Brown retires after 22 years at UM.
  • Bill Johnston retires as head of the Alumni Association after 36 years with UM.
  • Teresa Branch, vice president for student affairs, retires after 13 years at UM; in the announcement about her departure, Engstrom noted her job would shift to include enrollment.
  • Peggy Kuhr, vice president for integrated communications, leaves after nine years at UM, her alma mater.

"They have committed a great deal to this institution, each in their own way," Engstrom said in an interview this week. "And I'm very grateful for what they've done."

A couple new deans are coming on board in the next school year as well. In at least two cases, for provost and director of Alumni Relations, UM will appoint interim leaders as it searches for permanent hires.

The turnover in leadership takes place less than a year after the president announced UM needed to make major faculty and staff cuts – to contribute to an estimated $12 million shortfall – to align its spending with an ongoing drop in enrollment.

Last month, the College of Humanities and Sciences experienced another budget squeeze worth "several million dollars."

The major transition in leadership comes at a time of change at the University of Montana.

"It's a very important time in the life of the university," Engstrom said. "We do have an opportunity here to move forward on many fronts."

In the year ahead, some imperatives are in order for UM, for its leadership, and even for the community.

For the university, the priority will be enrollment, Engstrom said.

For its leadership, honest and transparent communication is a must, according to a faculty leader and an organizational expert.

For the community, patience is key, according to the workplace specialist.

Karen McNenny, an expert in the field of organizational psychology and leadership development, said institutional crisis brings opportunity, and stakeholders in the community should know that transformation comes with growing pains.

McNenny, who spoke about organizations in general and not about the university specifically, said society is not always gracious in its expectations of its leaders.

"We're very demanding of our leaders," she said. "People often want to know all the answers immediately."

She suggested another approach, though. Missoula residents as well as UM employees and students could see themselves as partners in the transformation.

"Corporate evolution, in my opinion, also never rests on the shoulders of one person," McNenny said.

***

Engstrom said the changes in leadership came about after deep conversations between himself and those who are retiring. He declined to share the nature of the conversations or whether he told any of his cabinet members the university needed fresh insight at this juncture.

The departing cabinet members announced different reasons for retiring, and Engstrom stressed that he has been pleased with their contributions to UM.

"This isn't a wholesale change-out of administrators. It's individuals coming to a decision about their career, their life," he said.

In 2012, UM was in a similar situation, with Engstrom needing to hire four new vice presidents in the midst of federal investigations into how the school handled rape reports. At the time, he revamped a cabinet post to emphasize communications in order to improve discourse with the public.

This year, UM hired Tom Crady as the vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, and he'll start in early July. Beverly Edmond will serve as interim provost for a year, and the president will select an interim head of Alumni Relations as well.

The communications position is changing again.

To fill Kuhr's departure, the president promoted Mario Schulzke as associate vice president for integrated communications and chief marketing officer, overseeing the communications sector; he also created a director of communications position, who will report directly to him and serve as a lobbyist to the Montana Legislature, a role previously filled by the head of Alumni Relations.

A search for the communications director is under way, and both communications officers will serve on the cabinet.

Overall, Engstrom said, the number of administrators at UM remains the same, and it may "save a little money" by having one fewer vice president.

Engstrom anticipates the new leaders will sign onto his priorities for UM and also help shape a strategic plan with their own ideas.

"Whenever you have change of any leadership position, and particularly when several at a time occur like now, that does create an opportunity to bring in new ideas, new experiences," Engstrom said.

***

Now that the planned budget cuts are being implemented, the top goal for the new team is to push enrollment, the president said.

"That will be priority No. 1. I don't think there's any two ways about that," Engstrom said. "At the same time, we will continue to focus on providing an exceptional experience for our students."

Last year, faculty made important recommendations about the academic portfolio UM offers, he said, and his team will work to implement the ideas. For example, a report on academic innovation noted UM's Big Data program should grow.

"We will move as aggressively as possible to adjust that portfolio to make it as attractive as we can to today's students," Engstrom said, speaking in general about the report.

The president also wants to ensure the new team comes together.

While the loss of institutional experience is great, Engstrom said he was taking time this week to visit with retiring leaders to "download" their ideas, challenges and concerns. Also, he said, many more people with history at UM are staying than leaving, so the university won't be devoid of administrators familiar with its practices.

At the same time, it will have some fresh eyes looking at the campus.

"I want to convey the sense of excitement and opportunity that these new people will bring," he said.

The president doesn't anticipate budget cuts next year, but he said UM's budget is tied to enrollment, like every other system school in the state.

"So this isn't fundamentally a budget issue. This is an enrollment challenge for us," he said.

***

In times of change, strong communication is essential from a leader for employees and affiliates of the organization, said McNenny, who is based in Missoula but works throughout the country. Those looking for direction need a safe environment, and communication creates that security.

"I think one of the most essential duties of a leader during what you've just described (significant budget cuts and leadership turnover) is transparent communication," McNenny said.

Typically, she said, when leaders are silent, others believe those in charge are keeping secrets, and they begin to feel unsafe. The other thing that happens is people start to create their own stories, which don't always fit the facts.

"What I have found with other clients and other industries is that what people make up tends to be more drama-driven, wrong and misguided than actually what the truth may be," she said.

The challenge for the leader is that people want answers right away, even when the answers take time to develop, she said. But change at a large institution doesn't happen overnight, and it's complex.

"It's a renovation, and renovation always takes longer and costs more than you think," she said.

***

John DeBoer, chair of the Faculty Senate, said he's looking for leadership for the long term. If the president told him he had a plan to get past the crises at UM in one year, he wouldn't believe it.

"Large crises sometimes need long-term solutions," DeBoer said. "So what I'm looking for is a strategic plan to move us forward in a logical way that allows us to fulfill our mission in the present but also allows us to fulfill our mission 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and when all of us are long dead and gone."

He sees a solid mix of institutional memory and fresh energy on the cabinet. DeBoer was involved in the new hires to varying degrees, and he said Engstrom and vice president of finance Mike Reid will ensure institutional memory continues.

"There's going to be enough consistency to move forward while also bringing in new energy and new ideas, we hope," DeBoer said.

One message he's hoping to convey from the Faculty Senate is the need to move past the sadness people on campus experienced after the president announced the faculty and staff cuts last year.

"We really want to change the tone on campus and get us through the sorrow of the last six months," he said.

At this point in UM's history, he's also interested in honest communication from its administrators.

"I don't want them to protect us from bad news," he said. "If enrollment is going to drop, and they tell us, we need to hear that, even if it's hard."

***

A recent change the president made to his cabinet will bring about more transparency, DeBoer said. Last year, in response to feedback from the campus community, the president augmented his cabinet to include chairs of the faculty, staff and student senates.

"That doesn't mean everything that gets learned in cabinet is public information that I can share with my constituents right away, but that we're not caught off guard," DeBoer said.

It also means a faculty representative – and representatives for staff and students – will share with administrators the way decisions from Main Hall impact teachers and students and other employees.

DeBoer declined to comment on whether he believes Engstrom has the skills to take UM all the way through the storm, saying he needs to wait and see. In general, though, he said he's going into the year with an open mind and remains optimistic about the institution.

"I as a faculty member remain hopeful, but that's part of my job, to be critical and hopeful at the same time as I head into the cabinet," DeBoer said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian