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Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed longtime educator and Crow tribal member Janine Pease to the Montana Board of Regents on Monday.

Schweitzer, calling it a "historic day," said he believes Pease is the first American Indian to serve on the board. Pease's background as an educator and leader make her one of the most qualified candidates ever for the board, Schweitzer said.

"She brings a great set of talents to this job," Schweitzer said during a brief ceremony at Montana State University-Billings.

Pease, 56, will replace Mike Foster, who announced his resignation Friday, citing health reasons.

Pease, who lives in Billings, is vice president for American Indian affairs at Rocky Mountain College. She was president of Little Big Horn College for 18 years. She holds two bachelor's degrees from Central Washington University and masters and doctoral degrees from Montana State University.

Schweitzer talked with Pease late last week about the vacancy on the Board of Regents. Pease said she talked with tribal leaders and participated in a sweat ceremony on Sunday before deciding to accept the position.

"Higher ed is really my greatest love," she said. "It is the means by which our citizens come into our economies and serve our communities."

Pease, who will resign her position on the state Human Rights Commission, said she's hoping to bring new perspectives to the Board of Regents, which oversees the Montana University System.

The Board of Regents is made up of seven members, including one student, who are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. University System spending is set by the Legislature but the Board of Regents operates autonomously in setting policy for the system.

Pease said she wants to look at how better to move graduating students from tribal colleges into the University System and getting more high school graduates to go to college.

"That's the ticket for life in this state," she said.

Schweitzer called on Pease to make the University System more accessible, affordable and relevant to Montanans.

"The work has just started," he said.

Her term runs until February 2011.

Later Monday, a spokeswoman for Schweitzer said there probably have been one or two Indians who have served on the board before, but that Pease is definitely one of the first to be appointed.

The appointment of Pease, a Democrat, is the second in recent weeks. Schweitzer named Clayton Christian of Missoula, an independent, to replace Republican John Mercer, who resigned in March.

Chuck Denowh, director of the Montana Republican Party, criticized Schweitzer's selection. He said Pease was an "extremely partisan person" — citing her involvement with redistricting of the state Legislature — and Schweitzer should be held accountable for earlier statements that his appointment to the board would not involve partisan politics.

Contact Mike Stark at mstark@billingsgazette.com or 657-1232.

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