Former Rocky president given honorary degree, despite controversy

2014-05-09T00:00:00Z 2014-05-10T00:16:19Z Former Rocky president given honorary degree, despite controversyBy SUSAN OLP solp@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Rocky Mountain College President Bob Wilmouth has formed a committee to review the criteria used for choosing candidates for honorary degrees. It’s among several committees he has formed in the last year.

Wilmouth said any honorary degree policy would not apply to the board of trustees, which ultimately chooses who receives the honor.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t have a discussion,” he said.

The board awarded former Rocky Mountain College President Michael Mace an honorary doctorate during last Saturday’s commencement ceremony. Trustees had voted unanimously last year to award the degree to Mace.

“It’s a fairly standard process that retired presidents receive an honorary degree,” said Dr. Larry Campodonico, the board member who conferred the honorary degree on Mace at the ceremony.

Mace was president of Rocky from 2005 to 2012. He was hailed for his work at the college, but also has been at the center of some controversy.

He was a founding partner of the Sterling Acceptance Corp., and for 23 years he served as chairman and CEO of D&N Industries, a nationwide construction manufacturing and distribution firm.

Mace was also a member of the school’s board of trustees in 2005, when then-President Thomas Oates left his post with the school under a weight of debt.

“It was the board’s wish that we needed a business-type person as interim president,” Campodonico said. “And Mike was on the board and had been very successful businessman and entrepreneur, and we felt he had the qualities we needed at that time.”

In his first two years as interim president, Mace erased a $5.4 million deficit and boosted the school’s surplus to nearly $1.5 million and its endowment to $27 million.

His financial acumen and the fact that “he had lots of ideas and was fairly visionary,” prompted the board to confirm him as president, Campodonico said.

In 2007, misdemeanor battery charges were filed against Mace in Indiana after a developer and builder, David Klain, claimed that he had been slugged by Mace during an argument over repairs on Mace’s townhouse in Carmel, Ind. The charges were resolved after Mace agreed to pay court costs; see a counselor about anger management; and complete 40 hours of community service.

Then in 2010, a former employee of the college filed a lawsuit against the college and Mace that alleged assault and infliction of emotional distress. The college denied the accusations, and the lawsuit was settled in 2010 with a confidential agreement.

Campodonico said the suit was not an issue in the discussion to award Mace the honorary degree.

“Most of the present board members were board members at that time and we were wholly supportive of Mike through that time,” he said.

In September 2012, Mace announced his intention to retire June 30, 2013. Two months later, he asked the board for a medical leave and a six-month sabbatical, which effectively ended his tenure as president.

He acted as a consultant to Wilmouth, who was appointed interim president on Jan. 1, 2013. Wilmouth was permanently named to the post in April 2013.

Campodonico said that candidates for honorary degrees are generally chosen in consultation with the board president.

After vetting by the board, they are usually approved.

Wilmouth said his decision to set up the committee is not related to Mace’s honor, or the honorary degrees given to others, including actress Ann Margaret or media mogul Ted Turner. It stems from Wilmouth’s nature as “a big policy guy.”

“I’d just like there to be a strict policy on when we’re going to do things like that,” he said. “I want to review the requirements. To me, an honorary degree is a big deal.”

Wilmouth has set up a variety of committees in his past year as president to examine and improve how things are done at the college.

“We have a Retention Committee, we have a Commencement Committee,” he said. “I just felt like if we’re going to do something we want to do it right.”

Campodonico called Wilmouth’s decision to look at the honorary degree criteria a sensible move.

“I don’t think anyone on the board wants to minimize the honor that goes with the degree,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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