President Royce Engstrom has said he didn't have a hand in a series of Cabinet-level retirements last school year at the University of Montana.

However, a letter he signed – although never sent – shows Engstrom wanted change in at least one area.

The letter dated Jan. 29 to former vice president for integrated communications Peggy Kuhr noted the president sought a new direction in communications for UM.

"I am writing to inform you that I intend to eliminate the position of Vice President for Integrated Communications before the end of the fiscal year," Engstrom wrote.

"The office and you have served me so well during these past years, but I feel that I want to move in a different, as yet undefined, direction."

Engstrom recently confirmed the letter with his signature came from his office, but he said he never sent it. Kuhr also said she never received the correspondence.

Last school year, four top UM officials announced their retirements at a time when the university faced a $12 million budget crisis, as well as an enrollment decline of some 20 percent since 2010 on the main campus.

The ongoing drop in enrollment and ensuing budget difficulties affected at least one vice president's decision to leave. "I decided to go ahead and retire," said vice president for student affairs Teresa Branch, who made a public announcement last fall. "And that's in part because things didn't seem to be turning around, and I was trying to hang in there."

Engstrom has continued to maintain he did not direct the retirement of Cabinet members who announced their departures last school year, and that he was not seeking wholesale leadership change.

"These have all been just one-on-one conversations with each of these folks who have reached a certain point in their life and their career where they wanted to make that decision," he said in February, when he announced Kuhr's departure.

At the same time, the letter shows he wanted some adjustments, and he said this week his job includes selecting the people who set the course for UM.

"I have the responsibility as the president to constantly evaluate my leadership team in terms of where we're going as a university. Period," Engstrom said. 

He said he did not pen similar letters to any other staff members.

Discussions with Engstrom

In the letter, the president praised Kuhr even as he said he would not renew her contract for July 2016:

"I want to have discussions with you regarding your role at the University, as I believe you have a tremendous amount to offer, and I want you to have an engaging opportunity. I have some ideas about that.

"I am sorry to give you this news, and I look forward to talking further with you."

Kuhr is currently working on special projects for UM, and plans to retire at the end of December.

She said she believes she was in California discussing her retirement plans with her husband at the end of January, at the time the letter from Engstrom is dated. However, she said she and the president never discussed its contents.

"My discussions with Royce were about my decision wanting to retire," Kuhr said.

Bill Johnston, longtime head of the Alumni Association and the face of UM for many in Griz Nation, leaves his post in September. The lobbying part of his job is now included in the role of the president's new communications director.

"I would like to have worked a little longer, but it was my decision," Johnston said.

He said he has realized how quickly the years pass, and he is interested in other opportunities. He just turned 59, has worked for only one employer, and he said it was time for change.

"My personal goal was to be a little older, but I made a decision it was right for me to leave," Johnston said.

Johnston said he informed Kuhr, his supervisor, about his plans on Feb. 2, and one week later, he told the president directly because the president oversees his lobbying responsibilities.

He declined to share his opinion on the decision to combine lobbying and communications.

"That's the decision of the president," Johnston said.

On Feb. 12, Engstrom publicly announced Kuhr's plan to retire, and on March 2, he shared news of Johnston's pending departure. 

'Something needed to change'

Last school year, Provost Perry Brown and vice president for student affairs Branch also announced their retirements, and both said last week the president did not request their resignations.

In part, concerns about UM led Branch to retire, and she said she wanted to get her team in a stable place financially before she left.

"My sector was being decreased every year as a result of the budget cuts, and in many ways, it's hard to see how that was going to serve the student body effectively," she said.

Last year, Main Hall requested some $3.2 million from student affairs, money originally set aside for maintenance and capital improvement. Branch said she warned the president the funds are "one-time-only money" – in other words, not available again this school year.

She feared the continued decrease "in the institutional employee base" would harm the university and its students, independent of leadership at UM.

The past three years, enrollment was under the auspices of the provost, but it continued to slip, she said. So the president opted to move enrollment back to student affairs and seek a professional with expertise in that area, and Branch said she supports the decision.

"He (Engstrom) gave it several years to see if it was going to turn around, but it didn't," Branch said. "So it didn't make any sense to continue with the arrangement and the location of enrollment under the circumstances. Just logically, something needed to change."

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