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GREAT FALLS - A familiar name in Montana's college circles and a former top official of California's university system are the finalists for the job of higher education commissioner.

Warren Fox, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission for a dozen years, and Sheila Stearns, chancellor of the University of Montana-Western until 1999, were announced as the contenders Friday by the state Board of Regents.

But the selections were made two days earlier by the board in a closed-door meeting following private interviews with each of four semifinalists. Regents Chairman Richard Roehm of Bozeman said the delay gave the board time to notify the four semifinalists of its decision.

He noted Stearns - a Glendive native with 20 years in the university system - has deep ties in Montana and knowledge of the state's higher education operation.

Fox's extensive experience in the massive California university system and polished image during his interview were factors in the regents choosing him, Roehm said.

Fox and Stearns will be subjected to more interviews with legislators, Martz administration officials and campus leaders over the next two months. The regents expect to make their final decision at the July meeting in Kalispell.

The chosen person will replace Carrol Krause, who was named interim commissioner in January after Richard Crofts announced plans to retire. Crofts held the job for 6 1/2 years.

The commissioner is chief executive officer for the university system, acting as top adviser to the regents and carrying out their policies.

Stearns, 56, has been president of Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., since July 1999. Before that, she was chancellor and education professor at UM-Western for six years.

The job culminated two decades in the university system, all with the University of Montana. She was vice president of university relations, director of alumni relations and faculty member at the Missoula school during that time.

Stearns said Friday she has been interested in the commissioner's job for a decade, but decided for personal reasons not to apply for an opening before now.

Higher education colleagues in Montana encouraged her make the move this time and Stearns said the job is a good match for her leadership style.

"I have more of a bent toward collaboration instead of competition," she said. "My dedication to the state of Montana and its people would be a real plus."

Fox, 57, said his experience in California and as vice chancellor for the Nevada university system make him a good fit for the Montana post.

The issues facing higher education in Montana are similar to those in other Western states and the commissioner's job offers a valuable opportunity that cannot be found in larger systems, he said.

"The advantage of a state like Nevada and Montana is that you're closer to campuses, closer to the delivery of instruction and to students," he said in an interview from his Sacramento home.

Fox said he left his executive director's job in the California system last year because he was offered the job as scholar in residence at the University of California-Berkeley, and wanted to be back on a campus. Also, Fox said, the budget problem facing that state had resulted in deep cuts in funding for the commission where he worked.

But he said he realizes his "long-term interests and skills are in administration."

This is the third time Fox has been in the running for Montana commissioner. He applied for the job twice in the 1980s.

The other two semifinalists for the commissioner's job were James Kaze, a Havre lawyer and former regent, and William Fulkerson, former president of the State Colleges of Denver.

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