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Montana higher education pioneer Sheila Stearns passes away

Dr. Sheila Stearns was the first woman to serve as Commissioner of Higher Education in Montana. She was also the University of Montana's 18th president.
Shelia Stearns
Posted at 12:51 PM, May 24, 2023

MISSOULA - She was a pioneer for Montana's higher education, becoming the first woman to serve as Commissioner of Higher Education.

Dr. Sheila Stearns — who served as the University of Montana's 18th president, and whose decades of service left a lasting impact in the state has passed away.

Stearns died on the morning of Tuesday, May 23, 2023, while visiting family in Flagstaff, Arizona following a brief illness.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar describes her as a titan in higher education serving as not only UM president herself but in leadership roles across the board.

Stearns received four degrees from UM; a bachelor’s in English and history, a master’s in history, a doctorate in educational administration and supervision, and an honorary doctorate in education in 2018.

Sheila and her husband Hal also received the 2017 Governor’s Humanities Awards for their support of the humanities throughout their careers in Montana education.

She is survived by her husband Hal, daughter Malin and son Scott. Services will be announced at a later date.

Bodnar posted the following message on the UM Office of the President webpage:

Dear UM Family, 

It is with deep sadness that I write to share that our university has lost one of its most ardent and loyal champions, and our state has lost one of its finest leaders. Dr. Sheila Stearns – UM’s 18th president – passed away yesterday in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she and Hal were visiting family.

A titan in higher education, Sheila was also a trailblazer. She served as Montana’s commissioner of higher education from 2003 to 2011, the first woman to serve in the role. Prior to that, she was president of Wayne State College in Nebraska, chancellor of the University of Montana-Western and vice president of University Relations for UM. Additionally, she served as interim chancellor at Montana State University-Billings and as senior consultant for the national Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Sheila was a Griz to her core, having received four degrees from UM: a bachelor’s in English and history, a master’s in history, a doctorate in educational administration and supervision, and an honorary doctorate in education in 2018. Sheila and Hal also received 2017 Governor’s Humanities Awards for their support of the humanities throughout their careers in Montana education.

Sheila was not just an incredibly successful leader; she was a dedicated public servant to her beloved Montana. She was called upon to serve in numerous service and leadership roles for our state throughout her lifetime, most recently as the chair of Montana’s Redistricting Commission.

Above all, Sheila was a wise, generous, and caring friend to so many here at UM and across our entire state. I am deeply grateful for her mentorship, her sage advice, and her kindness to me as I joined UM, and I know that I am far from alone in calling her a role model. I will miss her dearly.

We will share additional information soon, including how our university will celebrate Sheila’s life and her enduring impact on higher education across Montana. I ask that you keep her husband Hal, son Scott, daughter Malin, and their entire family in your thoughts during this difficult time.

Seth