University of Montana Dean Roberta Evans said Thursday she is stepping down Jan. 1 into a faculty position.
Evans was named dean of the School of Education in May 2002 after serving as interim dean from July 2001, and she oversaw the expansion of the school into the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences.
"There's just so much tremendous, good work there," Evans said of the college. "And I want to study it deeply again and have a chance to contribute to what is really the heavy lifting, the research and the teaching about it."
During her tenure, the college has pulled in millions of dollars in donations and some of its programs have earned national recognition.
In an email to the campus community Wednesday, Provost Beverly Edmond thanked "Bobbie, as we affectionately call her," for being a "stellar member" of UM's leadership team for more than two decades.
"I look forward to the new activities she will carry out in this new chapter of her distinguished career," Edmond wrote. "Bobbie has always loved teaching and learning, and plans to continue her passion for advancing the quality of public education by focusing on fresh research ideas."
In the email, Edmond said she would soon announce her intentions for appointing an interim dean and her plans for filling the position on a "more permanent basis."
In a phone call Thursday, Evans said she always knew in her heart she would step back from the deanship sooner or later. She said a convergence around homecoming weekend prompted her decision to return to research and teaching.
Her team had just submitted strong reports related to UM's project to set priorities. She has been able to hire "star power faculty." And the college is at a peak of "extramural funding," with a $10 million gift announced on homecoming weekend.
"I think I have a really good record of supporting those superstar professors, but now I want to jump back in and be one. So that's the deal," Evans said.
The project to set priorities includes academics and administrative services, and it's in some ways a competition to see who is doing the most with the least, Evans said. In that regard, she is pleased with the reports delivered about her college to the task force.
"I think they're going to be mightily impressed when they see really what we have done," she said.
Announced earlier this month, the $10 million gift from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to the College of Education and Human Sciences is counted as one of the largest gifts in UM history. Evans said the Washingtons have a relationship with her whole team, and they are savvy investors who want to see results.
"And I'm not the person who has generated those results. Now, I can help generate more as a faculty member," Evans said.
In August, the dean also announced a $5 million gift from an anonymous donor to fully fund two new academic chairs. The contribution increased the number of instructors in the college at a time when UM is losing positions because of budget difficulties.
Last year, the college earned two national rankings for its graduate programs in curriculum and instruction. U.S. News & World Report ranked UM among the "2016 Best Online Graduate Education Programs," and Top Masters in Education listed it among "The Top 50 Best Value Masters in Special Education Programs."
In 2015, Evans was named administrator of the year by the Montana Association of Students for "a history of excellence in leadership." She was nominated for the 2014-15 school year by students and colleagues, according to a news release from UM announcing the award.
In her email, Edmond noted Evans also served as interim chancellor of UM-Western and received the Pantzer Award in 2004 for making UM a more open and humane learning environment.
Provost Edmond said Evans' leadership has made a positive impact on the institution and she believes the dean is equipped to contribute at a national level.
"Indeed, I recently shared with Bobbie my belief that the knowledge of and advocacy for public education she consistently displays is such that she would be well suited to a role on educational administration policy at the national level," Edmond wrote.
In the phone call, Evans confirmed she will take a pay cut in her return to faculty, but she said the work itself is the most important to her at this point in her life.
"There are lots of different kinds of rewards, and I'm in education, so I didn't start out in this field for the money," Evans said.
The dean said she herself made the decision to step down, and she opted to do so before a permanent dean is named because UM is already in the midst of transition. In January 2018, interim UM President Sheila Stearns passes on the leadership post to General Electric executive Seth Bodnar, whose selection is pending approval by the Montana Board of Regents.
"It's the perfect time because there's so much momentum and so many people really poised right in our own college to be deans," Evans said.
Allowing an interim dean to lead the college "gives someone a chance to taste the deanship," she said. She also noted that she'll see the college through the remainder of the process to set program priorities.
"I am confident that we will be rewarded for tremendous productivity come December," Evans said.