There and back again – Montana’s new Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns

Montana’s new commissioner of higher education has returned to Missoula where she went to college and her career began

By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

It’s a dark brown house from the 1960s, similar to dozens of other homes in Missoula’s Lewis and Clark School neighborhood.

Three bedrooms up, two down. Comfortable, not fancy.

But to Montana’s newly appointed commissioner of higher education, it is her refuge.

It’s the home where Sheila Stearns’ heart is.

The place she returned to at the end of her work day as the University of Montana’s director of alumni relations, and when she was promoted to vice president for university relations.

It was her haven from her grueling hours as a university legislative lobbyist, her shelter during her battle with breast cancer. The home where she and her husband, Hal, guided their children Scott and Malin through the teenage years. The weekend retreat when Stearns became chancellor at Western Montana College, and the gathering spot for Christmas, no matter how far-flung the family had become over the years.

For nearly two decades, it has been a lighthouse that signaled safe harbor as the family, and their careers, marched on, away from Missoula and Montana.

"Some people have vacation homes, we have the Benton Street house," Stearns said. "I think of it as the Stearns family base camp. And that’s what it is. People are always coming and going, and even though it’s not that big, it’s always big enough."

On this Homecoming weekend, coming home is even sweeter, Stearns said.

Never mind that it marks the 36th anniversary of when Hal proposed to her, or that she was crowned that same weekend as Homecoming queen.

Her grandchildren, 10-month-old Renn and 3-year-old Elise, now live in the Benton Street camp full time, thanks to their parents, Scott and Julee, who recently relocated from Minnesota.

And after a four-year stint as president of Nebraska’s Wayne State College, the UM alum is back in Montana, for good.

Returning as the state’s top university administrator, Stearns said she feels well positioned to help ease the funding struggles plaguing Montana campuses, and she’s honored for the opportunity to give back to the system that has given her so much.

Guiding the university system, she said, is not just a job or work to earn a paycheck. It is a vocation.

"My positions as a chancellor and president have turned me into a missionary," Stearns said.

"Students and families are justifiably frightened about whether they can afford college in a few years," she said. "I have watched Iowa, Minnesota and other states raise tuition in double-digit figures, while skimping on raises, deferred maintenance and technology investment. This is penny-wise and pound foolish in our information age."

Just three weeks into her new job, and with her first Board of Regents meeting behind her, Stearns said her plan is to immediately launch in-depth tours of all the campuses within the state university system. While she is in those communities, she’ll visit with students, faculty, local residents and legislative delegates to learn about their perspective regarding university issues.

"I need to do a lot of listening to really find out where I can help strengthen the university system’s unique role in the state’s economic development," Stearns said. "The question I have is: Have we really pulled together as part of that engine? Are the critiques lobbed at the university system legitimate?

"I believe the university system has always been a part of the state’s economic development," she said. "But if we can do more and do better, we will."

For those who have watched the relationship between the university system and state legislators unravel over the years, Stearns’ arrival is a shot in the arm for both sides, said Bill Beaman, a Helena financial investor and past president of UM’s Alumni Association.

"If anybody can straighten out the problems, it’s Sheila," Beaman said. "She was very successful working with legislators when she was a lobbyist, and she has a great personal style."

When Beaman heard Stearns address the university presidents council recently, her polished, eloquent address made him keenly aware that the young Glendive woman he watched be crowned queen at UM’s Homecoming so many years ago had fulfilled the potential everyone saw in her.

"She always stood out," he said. "Everyone knew her as extremely bright, very outgoing and talented.

"Now, having her as commission of higher education is the best thing that has happened in this state for a long time."

Her children think so too.

"She’s a terrific role model, not just for me, but for others," said Scott, a Missoula attorney. "She is someone who can bring people together, be they Republican or Democrat, Bobcats or Grizzlies. She always sees both sides of an issue and because of that, she’s able to find consensus.

"She is one of my most important advisers – not because she’s my mother, but because she gives good advice."

Malin said she knows her mother will tackle the stress and challenges of her new job with the same grace and style she showed when she beat back cancer in 1991.

"I don’t ever remember it ever being a struggle," said the UM law student. "Mom approached it as a time to develop her sense of humor and she did. She brought comedy movies and books into the house, and it was a very joyful time.

"(Since) she came through it, she has this sense of peace and balance that she could handle anything."

Of that time, Stearns said it reinforced her natural inclination to be a problem solver, not a brooder.

"You can waste a lot of energy on worrying, and stress and panic only make things worse," she said. "And I try my best to work toward solutions."

When the opportunity came to take the Nebraska job, Stearns said she and Hal had some tough decisions to make. Neither was all that eager to leave their large extended family, now spread across Montana, and to leave the land they treasured.

Although they eventually settled in, made close friends and did work they were proud of, Nebraska never was home, Hal said, which makes this homecoming all the more special.

"It means so much to us," he said. "They say you can never go home again, but we have come home – there is no doubt about it."

This time around, however, the couple have taken up residency in Helena. It’s a house they like, but their heart belongs to the Benton base camp.

"It’s hard to stay away from those little ones," Stearns said. On a recent Grizzly football weekend, baby Renn took his first solid steps under his grandmother’s watch, while other family members were at the game or out fishing.

He’s earned the nickname "Renny-Mac the running back." But no one is saying which team he’ll play for someday.

"I’m a social Griz," Stearns said. "I still check the papers to see how the Bulldogs did. My brother is a Bobcat. There’s only one game a year when it gets a little shaky, but I root for the Bobcats every game they play," she said.

"I want them all to do well, and I’m proud of them all."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at [email protected]

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