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University of Montana President George Dennison sums up the past two decades as head of the state’s largest public university with a few defining moments:

  • The conclusion of the 1997 and 2008 university fundraising campaigns, when the university brought in $200 million.
  • The burst of the dot-com bubble, and subsequent stock market plunge.
  • The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the economy worsened still.
  • The 1994 restructuring of the Montana University System.

That Dennison highlights those events as he prepares for his August retirement speaks to his tenure during a time of intense financial challenges and growth for the university – and also to Dennison’s own focus during those 20 years. That focus, in turn, is the source of both the praise and the criticism marking Dennison’s waning days at UM.

“I think he’ll go down as the most significant president in the history of UM,” said state Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns. “I can’t imagine that would change for another couple centuries. Not just his length of time, but the fact he was able to elevate the university from a somewhat little-known – attractive, but little-known – research university to one that has received all kinds of national recognition in many ways.”

But some say the university’s progress came at the expense of academic integrity, with too much emphasis on building more classrooms and not enough on what’s taught in those classes. UM’s relationship with corporate donors, alleged mismanagement of federal grant dollars, athletic expenditures and ideas for generating revenue caused great public outcry.

“He sometimes loses perspective when it comes to money versus important academic ethical issues,” said English professor Casey Charles. “That’s his Achilles heel.”

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To know how far UM has come since 1990, consider the following:

  • Enrollment increased from 10,000 students to more than 14,500 today.
  • Research dollars increased from $7 million to nearly $70 million.
  • Tuition jumped more than 100 percent in that time.
  • State support for the university dropped from 73 percent of the total budget in 1990 to 40 percent in 2009.
  • Some $500 million in private dollars was secured in the past 20 years.
  • Dennison’s salary increased from $89,000 in 1990 to $280,000 in 2010.
  • The number of doctoral degrees awarded annually rose from 15 in 1990 to 75 today.
  • More than 1.3 million square feet of building space has been added.

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“It went by very quickly,” said Dennison, reflecting on the events of the past 20 years from a dark leather chair in his corner office of Main Hall, his right foot propped up on the coffee table in front of him.

Dennison, 74, is the longest-serving president in UM history, and is scheduled to step down as head of his alma mater on Aug. 15, 20 years to the day after he took the job.

Ask Dennison to grade his performance and leadership over the past two decades and the one-time honor student gives himself a C+. This despite an undergraduate career of only two B’s and the rest A’s.

Stearns calls it “indefensible modesty.”

No one says running a university is easy, and advocates and critics alike agree that Dennison, a Kalispell native, governed with good intentions and with UM’s best interests in mind.

“To make tough decisions, they are not always accepted or supported by everyone,” said Mehrdad Kia, UM’s associate provost for international programs. “But his commitment and love for the university and the state cannot be challenged.”

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Dennison’s influences on UM range from the cosmetic to the socially significant.

Shortly after arriving at the Missoula campus, Dennison insisted that the “T” in “the” when preceding the university’s name be capitalized – The University of Montana – out of respect for the institution. Dennison then took the initiative in 1995 to change the school’s colors from burnt orange and gold to maroon and gray, which more closely resembled UM’s original colors.

But he also defied calls to shut down the play “The Vagina Monologues” when it was performed on campus in 2003.

“I do not hold up some individuals and groups as heroes and some as goats,” Dennison wrote in a Missoulian guest column, standing up for the students’ free speech. “Nor do I interfere with open and free discussions of a range of viewpoints, so long as the discussion remains open and free.”

And he was one of the first to sign on to a petition to extend health and retirement benefits to homosexual partners of university employees. Seven years later, in 2005, the Montana Board of Regents adopted the proposal.

“He’s been great on diversity issues,” Charles said.

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But not always so great on the public relations front.

Faculty have described Dennison’s leadership style as imperial and even unilateral in the latter part of his career.

“He’s been criticized a lot for the buildings,” said history professor Mike Mayer, a 22-year veteran of UM and someone who has publicly butted heads with Dennison on several occasions over the years. “We needed some buildings, but I wish we’d seen as much energy toward some academic concerns.”

Other controversies revolved around money and Dennison’s relationship – or the university’s, under his leadership – with corporate donors.

People took issue with Dennison serving as a paid member on Plum Creek Timber Co.’s board of directors. Some felt UM jumped into bed with corporations such as Coca-Cola after it signed a six-year, $6.2 million contract giving the company exclusive rights on campus. Some students objected to UM’s association with corporate giants such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Russell Athletic, alleging they were tied to unfair labor practices. That issue stirred protests and sit-ins, including one in Dennison’s office. (He was in China at the time.)

There was UM’s NASA-funded space program hubbub, during which questions arose under Dennison’s watch as to how those federal dollars were spent.

And there was the controversial proposal to develop the University Golf Course into a retirement community. Dennison worked hard to get that one approved, only to see it rejected, something that still rankles. UM was set to benefit $2 million annually from the retirement community, an amount Dennison said could have put the university in better financial shape today.

“Nobody plays golf down there,” he said. “They just walk around and talk to each other and hit the ball occasionally. Most of the people who golf there aren’t serious golfers. Lets face it; it’s more of a social club.”

The most recent plan calls for the golf course one day to house a new College of Technology.

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That’s the public Dennison.

But his day begins far from the spotlight, at around 3:30 every morning, only a couple of hours after the downtown bars catering to college kids have shut down. It’s dark and silent when Dennison laces on his running shoes to tackle the same 4.5-mile route from his home at the corner of Gerald and University avenues to Reserve Street and back.

The early morning routine is one that began 40 years ago when handball workouts were too hard to squeeze into his daily schedule. It’s conducive for someone who arrives at work at 6:30 a.m. Dennison’s desk is organized and his e-mail inbox is clear by 8 a.m.

Only when he has an early morning flight does he miss the run. Never had an injury, either. The coldest Dennison has ever felt was upon completing a winter run in Havre. The mercury read 25 below.

“I froze my face,” he said.

Then there was the time he got lost running in downtown Tokyo. The language barrier made asking for directions a challenge.

Kia has traveled with Dennison to Germany, Japan, Korea, the Republic of Georgia and Tajikistan.

On a particular trip to the Republic of Georgia, Kia arrived in the capital city of Tbilisi several hours after Dennison, and was en route to his hotel at 4 a.m., riding with the president of the Tbilisi Institute of Asia and Africa, when the pair saw a figure running in the distance along the desolate streets. They joked that it must be Dennison. As they drew near, they realized it was.

“It speaks to his consistency, discipline and sense of focus,” Kia said.

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Those traits carry into how he’s run the University of Montana.

Asia is special to Dennison, who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for a year while serving in the U.S. Navy as a young man. He worked the graveyard shift as an electronics technician. It’s where Dennison learned the eating habits that stick with him today. He consumes only a single meal, around 6 p.m., but his ceramic coffee mug is bottomless.

As president of UM, Dennison set out to help students have the same eye-opening experiences. He has served as chairman of the International Student Exchange Program, a network of 300 colleges and universities in 42 countries that provides international education. During his tenure, UM more than doubled the number of students who study abroad. International faculty exchanges at UM increased from 15 in 1990 to 91 today.

Kia arrived at UM in 1989 as an assistant history professor teaching classes focused on central Asia, the Middle East and north Africa. Twenty years later, UM offers a minor and major in Central and Southwest Asian Studies, and students are requesting the addition of an Arabic minor. UM offers classes in Russian, Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Chinese. The Montana Board of Regents will decide soon on whether to approve a new Center for the Study of Central and Southwest Asia.

“It’s rare to not have to do much convincing,” said Kia, reflecting on the path that brought the program to this point. “Without strong commitment and leadership from the university president, and now the provost, this wouldn’t have happened.”

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Dennison is the first to acknowledge his critics, their “King George” references and his alleged “edifice complex.” Yet, he has never backed away from opposition.

And even those who criticized his decisions say Dennison always moved forward in a positive, professional manner and never held a grudge.

“I think that’s a real virtue,” said Mayer, the history professor. “He’s very cordial.”

Dennison says he would have handled only one situation differently.

“I wouldn’t have been so patient with allowing a situation to continue in athletics,” said Dennison, referring to the $1 million athletic budget deficit in 2004, which resulted because of an accounting error and lack of planning on the part of the athletic department. It led to the resignation of the athletic director, and spurred investigations into the department’s financial accounting and spending policies.

In the end, Dennison shouldered the blame.

“I issued some warnings well before the over-expenditure actually occurred and I should’ve cut it off much sooner,” he said.

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When Dennison departs his corner office, he’ll takes with him fond memories, such as the glitzy galas planned by Phyllis Washington, wife of billionaire industrialist Dennis Washington, at the end of each major fundraising campaign.

“I love black-tie events,” he said, calling those parties “some of the best evenings of my life.”

Dennison won’t be going far, however. He plans to write the history of UM from the year it was chartered in 1893 until today, a process he predicts will take three to five years.

“It’s a historical view, so everyone’s perspective will have to be in there,” he said.

When asked what he thinks his legacy will be, he responds, “I’m building on what was already here.”

He hopes he’s remembered for internationalizing education, improving graduate education and encouraging civic engagement. That’s the stuff that makes him proud.

“I know people say very often about authoritarianism and ‘King George’ and all that stuff, but I listen to what the students say,” he said. “Generations of students have not said that. They have said that I do consult and do listen. I don’t always agree with them, but I tell them straightforward and I do that with everybody.”

For as long as Dennison’s been president, he’s maintained open office hours for students and faculty to bend his ear. UM senior Zach Porter, president of UM Climate Action Now, approached him earlier this year about helping send four students to a global climate conference in Florida.

“If you are coming to meet with him, you better be prepared, which is how it is in the real world,” Porter said.

Which, after all, is what a university education is supposed to do.

“So,” said Porter, “we can all thank him for that.”

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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