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Clayton Christian

Missoula businessman and former Montana Board of Regents

Chairman Clayton Christian has been appointed commissioner of

higher education, taking over for Sheila Stearns, who retired at

the beginning of the year.

Over Christmas break, it took the Montana Board of Regents only a week to identify, interview and announce the next commissioner of higher education.

The job was never opened or advertised publicly before the board hired its own chairman, Clayton Christian.

No one argues that Montana’s next commissioner of higher education wasn’t an excellent candidate. What concerns some folks is the abrupt halt to what was supposed to be a national search for Montana’s next top higher education official.

“Quite a number have expressed disappointment in the process,” said Dave Beck, president of the University of Montana faculty senate. “When the process is truncated the way it was, people wonder who else would’ve showed up as a candidate.”

The Board of Regents recognizes that it was an unconventional search process.

The Florida-based search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc. was hired at a maximum of $75,000 to help conduct a national search for Montana’s next commissioner of higher education. Commissioner Sheila Stearns announced in May plans to retire after serving in the role since 2003. The regents held community forums across the state, inviting professors, union leaders, students and administrators to weigh in on the qualities that they would like to see in the next commissioner.

But when the regents began to tell consultant Betty Asher that they were interested in a candidate with qualities like Christian’s, the consultant asked the regent’s chairman to consider applying.

News that the regents had approved Christian as the next commissioner of higher education was announced in the same news release as his resignation from the board.

“A lot more transparency would have legitimized the process and, ultimately, the decision,” said Jennifer Gursky, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. “I’m still unclear as to why he’s the best candidate. I’m not sure a business background came up during some of those early discussions.”

Others have stronger feelings.

“The process stinks,” said John Robinson, former chair of the Bitterroot College Steering Committee. “He may be the best thing that ever happened to the system, but it seems as though it was developed with collusion.”

When Stearns was hired as commissioner nine years ago, it was the first national search that the Montana University System had conducted in many years for this particular position, said Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner for fiscal affairs. There was a long period when internal candidates — often the deputy commissioner of academics and research — were appointed commissioner on an interim basis and eventually “interim” was dropped from their title. Nearly all had a doctorate degree.

This search went much differently.

In the end, the consultant hired by the regents received just less than $52,000 for roughly four months of work. Had the regents continued with the search, it’s likely that the Montana University System would’ve paid $100,000 more to cover candidate travel costs only to come to the same conclusion.

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Consider when UM President Royce Engstrom was hired. Once other candidates learned that there was a qualified internal candidate, they withdrew their applications, leaving only Engstrom to interview for the job. Rather than spend additional money continuing the search, the regents decided to end the search after finding a consensus on the only candidate.

“We were aware of the perception, but we were overwhelmed with the consensus,” Regent Todd Buchanan said. “Any hire is a risk, and we were willing to take on that risk. We didn’t meet as a body to come to that determination. We all said, ‘Someone like Clay is what we’re looking for.’”

It’s important to note that the regents didn’t eliminate the requirement that the commissioner have a doctoral degree. It never existed.

With each vacancy, the board writes a new job description, and, in this particular situation, they decided only that the candidate must have “an appropriate degree.”

There’s been a lot of turnover in the Montana University System lately, Buchanan said. Christian can bring continuity to a system that has new chancellors at five of the six smaller, four-year campuses and presidents at both MSU and UM.

These presidents and chancellors have extensive higher education experience, he said. So, Buchanan said, he looked for a commissioner with different qualities. They included executive experience, leadership and someone who knows Montana and how Montanans think and operate.

“We’re not beholden to the fact that a higher education is the most necessary requirement,” he said.

Bill Bryan, a Bozeman entrepreneur who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan and sits on both the MSU and UM presidential advisory committees, attended a community forum last week on the MSU campus with Christian and several regents to find out what the new commissioner was like. He’d interacted with Christian on only a couple of occasions in the past.

“I came away feeling, yeah, all right, let’s try and make this work,” he said. “I accept the regents’ perspective that this is the right decision. At the end, it was the right thing mainly because of what the end result was.”

No one disputes that Christian has been a loyal and dedicated servant to the University System for the past six years. And it’s not unusual for someone running a search committee to realize midway through the process that he’s an appropriate candidate for the job, said Deni Elliott, a professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in ethics.

It’s just that, when there’s not a pool of candidates to compare the person against, it causes questions.

“The idea that there would be only one appropriate candidate for a position like this is not likely,” Elliott said.

“The process was not ethically ideal. Things that appear secretive or appear that they didn’t happen in an open and free way can raise ethical questions for members of the public. When public money is at stake, then they are justified in wanting to feel confident that the candidate chosen is the best for the job.”

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