Sheila Stearns has stepped into the role of interim president at the University of Montana in a hand-off that took less time than projected.

"It's fair to say that the transition is complete, and Sheila is in the president capacity," said Kevin McRae on Wednesday; McRae is deputy commissioner for communications in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education in Montana. 

On Dec. 1, Commissioner Clayton Christian announced he had asked President Royce Engstrom to step down by the end of the month. Engstrom had taken the post in 2010 after serving as UM provost.

In his tenure, academic quality remained high at UM, and the flagship secured an historic $24 million donation, but enrollment dropped year after year. This fall, UM experienced its most precipitous decline, at 6.7 percent.

In a letter announcing the transition, Christian said Stearns, previous Commissioner of Higher Education and former head of UM's Alumni Association and University Relations, would serve as interim president starting January 1.

However, McRae said Wednesday that the transition went well and Stearns was able to step into the role quickly. He said the start date on her contract, which will go before the Montana Board of Regents next month, will likely be Dec. 12.

In a season's greetings email this week, Stearns thanked Engstrom and his wife, Mary, praised UM's achievements and excellence, and shared a picture of a snowy Main Hall from the Oval. She noted her official term begins on January 1.

"The picture on this card of Main Hall on a snowy day shows exactly how it looks outside my office window," wrote Stearns, who also shared a picture of herself and husband Hal Stearns.

Stearns, who signed the note as UM president, also touted UM's tradition of wealth in human capital.

"One hundred years ago when UM President E. O. Sisson assumed the duties of this office, he wrote words that are just as true today: 'Richer than any fiscal abundance is the human wealth of the University.'

"Almost hourly I discover another extraordinary achievement by one of our faculty, staff, and students, such as the success rate of our pre-med students’ acceptance into medical schools, or the awarding of yet another prestigious Marshall Scholarship to a stellar honor student," Stearns wrote.

UM spokeswoman Paula Short said Stearns is occupying the president's office in Main Hall, and former President Royce Engstrom is no longer working there "on a daily basis."

"Sheila has been on the campus the last couple weeks and engaged in the business," Short said.

Stearns already has met with the commissioner and outgoing president about how to transition specific projects, and she's met with faculty leaders, student leaders, deans and vice presidents, McRae said. He said many of those meetings took place last week.

A search for president is underway, with listening sessions held earlier this month; the Commissioner's Office has said it aims to fill the job by July 1, but also said a thorough national recruitment may take longer.

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While the transition in the president's office went faster than expected, the search for a provost and vice president of academic affairs is delayed despite earlier pleas from faculty and student leaders to proceed with the recruitment.

The delay means UM's top two posts will be filled by temporary leaders for at least the next semester. According to a campus memo this week, the provost search is "on hold pending the selection of a new UM president."

Interim provost Beverly Edmond was hired to fill the job for the 2016-2017 school year, and she has agreed to extend her contract with UM as needed, said Mike Reid, vice president of finance for UM and head of the provost search.

Reid said the pool of candidates for provost will remain active; he did not disclose the number of candidates, saying the search is still underway. 

"At this point, we've had conversations with all the finalists," Reid said. "They're all very interested in continuing the conversations when a new president is selected, and we'll gauge each other's fit at that time."

A new president may desire specific expertise in a provost, and UM will likely do an additional recruitment after the president is selected, he said.

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