Commissioner Emerita, Dr. Sheila Stearns

Commissioner Emerita, Dr. Sheila M. Stearns
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The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education sadly notes the passing of longtime Montana education leader Dr. Sheila M. Stearns on May 23, 2023.

In addition to serving as Commissioner of Higher Education from 9/2003 through 12/2011, Stearns served as Vice President and acting President of the University of Montana, Provost (president-equivalent at the time) of (then) Western Montana College of the University of Montana, President of Wayne State College in Nebraska, and acting Chancellor of Montana State University Billings.

The Montana Board of Regents in 2012 conferred upon Stearns the title Commissioner Emerita and noted:

The hallmark of Commissioner Stearns’ nine-years of service as commissioner has been her vision to expand educational opportunities for Montanans with a keen focus on quality and affordability. Each institution in the Montana University System owes a measure of its strength to initiatives led by Commissioner Stearns in a direction toward institutional and student success. Each college and university in our system is better today because of her expectation and empowerment for each institution to be a strategic provider of educational opportunity, quality, and affordability. In turbulent times, strong leaders make the persuasive case that risks are worth taking. Often, the best foundation for innovation is built where decision making is strategic and collaborative. Commissioner Stearns nurtured an operating environment in the Montana University System that enabled our colleges and universities to be proactive and bold in many ways.

The vision that set the foundations for these innovations came from a wealth of treasured experience. Commissioner Stearns served as the Montana University System’s chief executive officer since 2003 and served previously in president and vice president capacities for two decades in Nebraska and Montana. The lion’s share of her career has taken place in the public arena in advocacy for state support of higher education, and in delivering for students. It is her unique blend of leadership and wisdom from both a campus and system perspective that inspires campus communities in Montana to buy into and achieve under such vision and initiative. Her communication skills and rapport with the citizenry and public policy makers have contributed greatly to each institution gaining a more positive image within its community.


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