Royce Engstrom makes time to attend almost every University of Montana home football game, but he hasn't been able to free up his schedule lately to fit in one of his favorite hobbies—carving wooden canoes from scratch. UM's current provost and vice president of academic affairs—and the university's only finalist to succeed George Dennison as president—says woodworking gives him time away from enrollment projections and budget forecasts.
"A person has to have a balanced lifestyle," says the soft-spoken chemistry professor turned college administrator.
Engstrom's life has been anything but balanced of late. Since being named a finalist last month, his schedule has been filled by working lunches, stakeholder meetings and public speaking engagements, all geared toward allowing him to state his case for the presidency. The 57-year old father of two says he doesn't mind the pace, the 14-hour days or dealing with the media; his canoe carving tools will still be there when he gets a break. Engstrom is more concerned with addressing the issues that will fall to UM's first new president in 20 years.
"It certainly is a challenging task," says Engstrom, who joined UM as provost in 2007. "The University of Montana has the potential to be one of the finest institutions in the country, and I am pleased to be in a position to vie for the leadership."
Engstrom had his first chance to publicly address the Missoula campus on Monday during the first of three days of interviews, and his voice was already hoarse. He told a full UC Theatre crowd that increasing college graduation rates has been—and will remain—at the top of his priority list. Since 2008, Engstrom's office has led UM's effort to increase student retention, a national problem that's hit the campus especially hard. A freshman enrolling at UM in 2002 had a 40 percent chance of earning a degree within six years, and an article in The New York Times last year singled out the university as an example of a "failure factory."
"This is one of the key issues that we face as a society," Engstrom told the audience.
After his presentation, Engstrom fielded questions from the crowd on a range of issues, including athletic fees, campus diversity and, of course, the university's tightening budget. On the latter topic, he said UM's future fiscal health rests on a few key variables: The Montana Legislature must step up to fill part of the funding gap; UM needs to continue diversifying funding streams, specifically by bringing in additional research grants and private revenue sources; and the institution must find ways to save.
"We need to ask ourselves are we spending every dollar in the most efficient way," he said.
Colleagues call Engstrom a responsible fiscal manager. After earning a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, the University of South Dakota hired Engstrom as a chemistry professor. During his 27-year tenure at the 10,000-student institution, he climbed the academic ranks—from chair of the chemistry department to vice president for research and dean of USD's graduate school. While serving as dean, he says he oversaw a nearly three-fold growth in funded research. Engstrom also acted for three years as USD's provost and vice president for academic affairs before joining UM.
USD President James W. Abbott, who worked alongside Engstrom for 10 years, says his former colleague is an effective leader who's always willing to step up and lend a hand. For instance, Abbott recalls feeling a little lost when first appointed USD president in 1997.
"I would like to tell you that I was Royce's mentor. But the fact is, he was mine," Abbott says. "He really took it upon himself to explain things to me."
Perhaps Engstrom's most significant asset, Abbott says, lies in his ability to inspire trust, and his communication among colleagues.
"He's soft spoken, but he's tough," Abbott says. "He's fair. He's hard to dislike."
In fact, Engstrom has built quite a glowing reputation at UM during his brief tenure on campus. Union representatives praise him, as do students, faculty and staff. UM's outgoing president, and Engstrom's current boss, Dennison, is perhaps the provost's most notable supporter.
"I think highly of him," Dennison says. "People do think highly of him. He's done a lot of good work."
Doug Coffin, president of UM's University Faculty Association, concurs, adding Engstrom appears suited to lead the institution forward.
"I think the faculty feels there's broad support for Royce Engstrom—he's popular," Coffin says. "He's a very reasonable person to work with. We hope there won't be too much of the status quo. We'd like to see changes in the 21st century."
UM's Presidential Search Advisory Committee named two other finalists for the position last month, but one took a position at another university and the other dropped out of the hiring process before any finalists were announced. The lack of competition, however, doesn't mean Engstrom's hire is a done deal. The search committee is taking comments about Engstrom's qualifications through Sept. 16, and will incorporate the feedback in a report for Montana's Board of Regents. The board is expected to vote on Engstrom's bid to become president sometime before month's end.
Maybe after that he can finally get back to carving canoes—and resting his voice.