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University of Montana president Royce Engstrom talks in June about how the last six months of addressing the sexual assault issue has necessitated derailing his vision for the university.  While the issue hasn’t gone away, Engstrom is anxious to get back to UM’s mission.

The search is on at the University of Montana to fill four top-level Cabinet positions by the end of the year, including a revamped communications post designed to improve the university’s discourse with the public.

With four of the five vice president positions needing to be filled, President Royce Engstrom has a unique opportunity to reshape the university by appointing his new Cabinet, one that will work to mend recent events and move UM closer to achieving its strategic goals.

“I think it’s an unusual opportunity to do this all at once, essentially,” Engstrom said. “Four to six months from now, we’ll have this team in place and it’ll be full speed ahead accomplishing the things we need to.”

Of the university’s five VP positions, two are being held by interim heads, including the vice president for academic affairs and the vice president for research and creative scholarships.

The vice president for administration and finance will see its current VP retire at the end of this year, and the new vice president for integrated communications has yet to be filled.

While all four open positions will be filled by December, Engstrom said, the VP of research and creative scholarships will likely be first. The position has been advertised, but it failed to attract the candidates the university was looking for and the search has been extended.

“We have a new strategic plan and it requires all five of those sectors to operate at their maximum potential,” Engstrom said. “Having the right people there will allow us to accomplish the goals outlined in our strategic plan.”

It’s not unusual for a new university president to scrutinize his Cabinet-level appointments. Nor is it unusual to see a president shuffle administrative staff and assemble a Cabinet that best aligns with his or her goals.

What is unusual, Engstrom said, is the opportunity to fill four high-level positions within a short period of time. Engstrom would have preferred to see the process spread out, but recent events, including the shakeup in UM’s athletic department, brought the process to a head.

The university is under investigation by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, as well as the NCAA, at least in part because of concerns with how the university has handled reports of sexual assault and harassment in recent years. Some of the allegations involve the UM football team and athletic officials.

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It’s because of recent events, Engstrom added, that finding a new VP of integrated communications may be the most pressing task of all. If the university has room to improve, he said, it’s in how it communicates with the public.

“The communications position is critical to us,” said Engstrom. “To some extent, the events of the last six months have brought that home to us, but even beyond that, we need to maximize our ability to communicate effectively.”

Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System, said that under former UM President George Dennison, the communications post was wrapped into the title of executive vice president.

The position was held by Jim Foley, who took the job in 2005. Partially due to the way the position was arranged, along with other circumstances, McRae said, the arrangement created challenges for both the university and the media.

“If he (Foley) was traveling or swamped with whatever the VP does, there were some issues with response time and access,” McRae said. “The president (Engstrom) has given thought to what he’d like the whole array of communications to be. We think it’s a well-advised move and a sound direction to go.”

McRae said the communications branch of the university can help make or break public confidence and support in the university system. Not only does good communication help brand the university and recruit new students, it also answers to the public through the media.

Montana’s public universities must be capable of answering hard questions and providing information in a timely manner, McRae said. If the system expects to win the public’s support, it must allow the public to hold it accountable.

“We need an attitude and understanding where we expect and deserve tough questions, but we also look forward to them,” McRae said. “Every organization and university can improve, especially in communications. We’ve learned in recent months that we have areas and room to improve, so this is a challenge in a positive way.”

Engstrom agreed, saying that when he took office in 2010, he inherited Dennison’s old Cabinet and the administrative staff that came with it.

Shortly after being hired, Engstrom rewrote the executive VP’s position, giving it a new focus on external communications.

“I didn’t feel like I needed an executive vice president, but I did need someone in external relations,” Engstrom said. “Doing that gives us the opportunity to think about what that position really should look like, sort of independent of the person occupying it.”

The job title for the VP of integrated communications calls for a creative and energetic leader capable of working across campus on communications, marketing, broadcasting, media relations and crisis management, among other things.

The new VP must coordinate internal and external communications across UM’s four affiliated campuses and oversee the university’s branding and marketing efforts, which also are under review.

“The president (Engstrom) is making those decisions on a number of different Cabinet-level positions,” said McRae. “What he gets to reinvent is the leadership team that, in his view, will best support the direction and objectives of the university.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at (406) 523-5260 or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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