UM Honcho 

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Then, of course, there's the rape investigation thing. So that sucks.

All of this makes a compelling case for 2012 being pretty much the worst time to be the new guy on campus.

Royce Engstrom took the helm as UM president less than two years ago, on the heels of George Dennison's 20-year reign. Things looked downright peachy back then. Still, Engstrom, who had served as UM's provost since 2007, didn't seem to sugarcoat the path that lay ahead of him when he was a finalist for the presidency. "It certainly is a challenging task," he told the Indy in September 2010, about two weeks before he got the position.

"The University of Montana has the potential to be one of the finest institutions in the country," Engstrom also said, "and I am pleased to be in a position to vie for the leadership."

He wasn't the only one pleased by the prospect. Everyone sang his praises, from faculty to the outgoing president. "I think highly of him," Dennison said at the time. "People do think highly of him. He's done a lot of good work."

Engstrom entered the position with an annual salary of $280,000. (The governor makes just over $108,000 a year.)

Now, public opinion is singing a different tune. Comment boards lit up with harsh criticism following Engstrom's terse announcement March 29 that he'd fired Athletic Director Jim O'Day and football head coach Robin Pflugrad. "This is insanity at its highest level!" a Facebook user wrote on O'Day's Facebook wall the day of the firings. "Engstrom is crazy, he could never have an athletic director who has worked harder or brought as much dignity and professionalism to UM. He screwed up big time on this one and has lost my support completely." Others on local media comment boards weren't quite as polite.

Engstrom still hasn't explained why UM fired O'Day and Pflugrad. But that backlash wasn't the beginning, nor was it the end. Last December, the university hired former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to head an investigation into a disturbing rash of sexual assaults around the campus. Some incidents involved past or present Griz football players; others indicated the use of drugs by alleged rapists.

Throughout the winter, Engstrom supplied some updates on the administration's progress and said changes were in the offing. Officials reviewed the way they handled rape reports. Education about sex assaults was stepped up on campus. Still, the incidents have left UM, and Engstrom, with a black eye that refuses to fade. Even in the midst of the Barz study, Dean of Students Charles Couture was told of a sexual assault perpetrated by an international student. Before the case could be pursued further, the alleged assailant fled the country. And then, last week, UM emails obtained by the Missoulian showed an administration struggling to preserve its image while some were, understandably, demanding more accountability and transparency.

Engstrom was out of the country and unavailable to comment for this story. So we talked to George Dennison, back in Missoula this month after a year of work with the Colorado State University System. Dennison says he left town partly so Engstrom didn't feel in his first years that he had a former president looking over his shoulder.

"When you go into the job, you go in recognizing that it's virtually 24-7," Dennison says. "People don't mind calling any time of the day to raise an issue. You have to take a commitment that this is what I'm here for, and you can try very hard if you'd like to delegate things to other people, but delegation doesn't mean you escape the responsibility, because ultimately it comes back to the president."

click to enlarge Mistakes have been made: University of Montana President Royce Engstrom - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Dennison says the biggest challenge of his presidency came in the spring of 2004, when news broke of a nearly $1 million deficit in UM's athletic budget. Part of the problem was due to an accounting error, but, according to Dennison, the athletic department had overspent itself by $500,000. It was the "most embarrassing moment of my life," Dennison says. "But the only way you deal with difficult situations is to be right out front and simply say, 'Here's what we're doing and here's why.'"

Dennison is somewhat familiar with the position Engstrom's in now regarding sexual assaults. They happened on Dennison's watch as well. "One athlete involved in that way is too many," he says. "Even one student involved in such episodes is too many. ... We had a couple occasions of rape or alleged rape over the course of the years I was president. All you can do is deal with them straightaway."

Engstrom announced the completion of Barz's report on nine alleged sexual assaults on March 22. But the bad news hasn't let up. One female student was attacked on the sidewalk near UM in March. Another student told authorities she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room, but later asked police to drop the case.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was scrutinizing Missoula law enforcement agencies and UM over their responses to rape allegations over the past three years. The investigation has only worsened what was already a public relations nightmare for the university. Whispers of decreased enrollment are sweeping across campus. Donors have pulled financial support, in part due to the O'Day and Pflugrad firings.

Despite all this, Engstrom has still recorded and released his weekly President's Update videos, two-minute missives on the latest news from UM in which he usually wears a smile. He took to the dais March 12 for the 2012 commencement ceremony, offering a warm welcome to friends and family from all over the country and congratulating more than 3,500 graduates on their accomplishments.

"This has been a challenging year in many regards, but it's also been a wonderfully productive year," Engstrom said in his final video update of the semester, May 8. "We've completed quite a number of faculty searches ... and Provost [Perry] Brown tells me that we were successful in recruiting almost all of our top candidates in those searches."

To hear Dennison tell it, those are the real payoffs. He feels a strong sense of achievement looking back on the millions he raised from the private sector for scholarships, programs and new buildings. He takes a "great deal of pride" in his development of the athletic department. As president of the University of Montana—or POTUM—he says, you have to "take the heat when the heat has to be taken." But Dennison says those 20 years were the highlight of his life.

"I look back on those years and feel very good about where we were when I came and where the institution was when I left. That's personal satisfaction."

Will Engstrom be able to say the same thing in two decades?

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