Former Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Sheila Stearns Has Passed Away

Montana’s first female commissioner of higher education, Dr. Sheila Stearns, has passed away on May 23, 2023. The cause of her death was a brief illness that occurred while she was visiting family in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Missoula, Montana native Sheila Stearns has earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Whitman College and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Colorado.

In 1964, she tied the knot with James (Jim) Stearns, the love of her life, and the two were blessed with three children. Dr. Stearns had a career as a higher education leader that spanned four decades.

After serving as the vice president for university relations at the University of Montana for a decade, she assumed the role of chancellor at the University of Montana-Western in 1987.

Montana-Western flourished and earned national recognition under her leadership. In 1990, Dr. Stearns was appointed as the 10th president of Wayne State College in Nebraska. She made history as the first female president of the institution and implemented innovative technology to modernize the university.

In a historic move, she was appointed as Montana’s commissioner of higher education a decade later, thus becoming the first woman to hold the position in the state. As commissioner, her focus was on expanding access to higher education for all Montanans, enhancing educational standards, and strengthening ties between Montana’s higher education institutions and the state’s industries.

An outspoken supporter of student financial aid was also among her notable attributes. In 2007, Dr. Stearns took on the role of interim chancellor at Montana State University-Billings and successfully navigated the university through a challenging financial period.

After serving as commissioner, she took on the role of senior consultant with the National Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Montana higher education and the community are mourning the loss of Dr. Sheila Stearns, who passed away on May 23, 2023, following a brief illness.

Throughout her illustrious career, she influenced the lives of innumerable students and educators, and her impact will continue. The cause of Dr. Stearns’ passing remains undisclosed, however, her absence has left a significant gap in the lives of those who were acquainted with her and admired her many achievements.

Montana’s higher education community will forever remember Dr. Sheila Stearns as a trailblazer. According to sources, her vision and leadership are expected to have a lasting impact on Montana’s higher education landscape and beyond.

The passing of this individual is a significant loss, however, her impact will endure through the students she motivated, the professions she established, and the organizations she aided in enhancing. In a solemn tribute, Dr. Stearns was honored for a career dedicated to Montana’s higher education, with a final message of gratitude for his service and a wish for him to rest in peace.

Paul Tuss reported that Sheila Stearns’ passing was mourned by many as they lost a dear friend. The individual recalls their experience with the subject, who served as Director of the Alumni Association during their time as an undergraduate at the University of Montana almost four decades ago.

They note that the subject continued to impress with their remarkable accomplishments and service to the state of Montana during their tenure as President of UM, while the individual served as Chair of the Board of Regents. The Stearns family and Hal are currently in the thoughts and prayers of many. Sheila, a person of significance, will be remembered for eternity.

Bruce Sayler reported that there was bad news and the speaker apologized for it. According to the source, Sheila consistently made herself available for inquiries and conversations, maintaining a friendly and courteous demeanor even in instances of disagreement.

According to the speaker, the individual in question was a formidable leader, and her departure will be mourned. The user expressed a sincere desire for the woman to have a peaceful night’s sleep. Dr. Stearns was widely recognized and respected by colleagues, students, and alumni for her visionary leadership, humility, and passion for education.

The individual has received several awards, including the Distinguished Service Award from the Montana University System, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Montana, and the Citizen-Times Award from the Montana Historical Society.

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