Montana Tech announced the four finalists to serve as the next chancellor of Montana Tech Friday afternoon, just two days before the first candidate will arrive in Butte to begin interviewing.
Three of the finalists come from academia, have terminal degrees, and have no notable existing connections to Montana Tech or Butte, while the fourth, Sandra "Sandy" Stash, comes from industry, has earned only a bachelor's degree, and has extensive ties to both the university and the community due to a lengthy and controversial tenure with Atlantic Richfield Co. in the Mining City and more than 15 years spent with the Montana Tech Foundation.
Also, some on the search advisory committee have expressed concerns about how Stash was chosen to be one of the finalists.
According to two committee members who asked not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the search process, Stash's application was considered and voted on apart from the rest of the candidate pool.
Brock Tessman, Montana University System deputy commissioner for Academics, Research and Student Affairs and the chair of Tech's search advisory committee, acknowledged that her application was voted on at a different time than the other three finalists.
Tessman said he did not even become aware of Stash's application, which was dated March 12, until Friday, March 15.
Though the deadline for "best consideration" of applications was Jan. 18 and the committee narrowed the pool of 56 applicants to 13 semifinalists on Feb. 14 and had already selected the three other finalists from the 13 semifinalists late last week when they were asked to consider Stash's application, Tessman said "he wouldn't define it as voting on her separately."
"The bottom line is that there are no late applications," Tessman said Friday. "Our job as the search advisory committee is really to find the best candidate for Montana Tech. And we build a process that is as fair and as consistent as possible because we believe that that's the way to find the best candidate, the strongest candidate."
But he acknowledged that Stash's late application meant the committee "grappled" with "complicated questions" about whether — and, if so, how — to consider it.
He said a majority of the committee agreed that "we would evaluate that application as we would have evaluated it with the entire pool of applicants," even though it was being evaluated afterward, and also voted to add Stash to the pool of semifinalists.
That led to a remote interview with Stash on Wednesday, March 20.
Before a vote was taken on whether to add her to the finalist pool, Tessman said that he "reminded the committee that they should decide if the person (Stash) would fall within the top three if that person had been considered" alongside the rest of the semifinalist pool. He said he also "urged" them to vote on the question of whether she would have been one of their top three candidates even though three finalist candidates had already been selected.
The committee ultimately decided to add her to the finalist pool, where she joined Paul W. Jagodzinski, Les P. Cook, and John F. Barthell.
Stash is the executive vice president of safety, operations, and engineering and of external affairs for London-based Tullow Oil. Stash was a director for the Montana Tech Foundation from 1999 to 2007 and again in 2010 to 2018, serving as chair from 2013 to 2016. She holds a bachelor's in petroleum engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and is considered a pioneering woman in the petroleum industry.
She moved to Butte in 1989 to lead cleanup operations for Atlantic Richfield, according to previous reporting. She drew criticism six years later after 342 snow geese were found floating on the surface of the Berkeley Pit's toxic water and she argued that the cause was not the pit but infected grain the birds had eaten. Stash was widely criticized for her handling of that incident, as she acknowledged in a 2015 commencement speech to Montana Tech graduates.
According to previous reporting, Stash told her audience that the incident was "one of my doozies." While the dead birds were being tested in a laboratory, Stash said that, against advice and her better judgment, she went forward with the grain explanation, which she said she believed at the time. But after tests showed the pit water killed the geese, Stash became a lightning rod for criticism.
"I wasn't only the lady who'd killed all the geese, I was the lady who'd killed all the geese and then lied about it," she reportedly said at Tech's 2015 commencement.
Pat Munday, a longtime watchdog of Butte's Superfund cleanup and professor at Tech, said Stash "was a very smart corporate representative" while "campaigning for a minimal cleanup" of mine waste in the Mining City.
As for her candidacy to replace Don Blackketter as the university chancellor, Munday said, "I think she would help Montana Tech in promoting mining and petroleum. She served as head of the Montana Tech Foundation for some years, and I think she was successful at raising money from oil companies and mining companies. My concern would be for other programs. I would be concerned she would be biased toward extractive engineering programs. But that's based on her track record. … Every candidate will go through an on-campus interview."
John Ray, another longtime Butte Superfund watchdog and university professor, expressed similar sentiments about her effectiveness as an Atlantic Richfield representative and her strong connections to Tech.
"She certainly has a relationship to Tech's strengths in engineering and the extractive industries," Ray said. "She'd certainly be well-versed in that area, and I think she'd be an articulate spokesperson for the university."
Calling her a "powerhouse of energy" who would "certainly stir things up," Ray also noted that Stash would be the university's first female chancellor, "so I'm glad they included a woman among the four finalists."
"We certainly need a chancellor who can help turn things around and create a vision for the future," Rays said. "Sandy would be able to create a vision for the future. I'd just like to know what it is before buying into it."
And Ray said he's looking forward to hearing the visions of all of the candidates, three of whom would be entirely new to campus and town.
Jagodzinski is the dean of the College of the Environment, Forestry and Natural Sciences at Northern Arizona University. Prior to joining NAU in 2009, Jagodzinski guided the work of the Department of Chemistry and Geochemistry in the Colorado School of Mines and taught at West Virginia University. He holds a doctorate in physical chemistry from Texas A&M University and a bachelor's in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering).
Cook serves as vice president for strategic university partnerships at Michigan Technological University, where he previously served as vice president for student affairs and advancement and in other administrative capacities. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Brigham Young University, a master's in public administration from Utah State University, and a bachelor's in political science from Utah State University.
Barthell is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma, a position he has held since 2013. He began his association with Central Oklahoma in 1995, serving in previous positions as a professor through a deanship of Central's College of Mathematics and Science. Barthell holds a bachelor's in zoology and a doctorate in entomology from the University of California-Berkeley.
Each candidate will conduct a day-long, on-campus interview open to the public, with Jagodzinski interviewing on Monday, March 25; Cook interviewing on Thursday, March 28; Barthell interviewing on Friday, March 29; and Stash interviewing on Friday, April 5.
After all four finalists conduct their campus visits, Tessman said the search advisory committee will meet on April 9 and report its thoughts on the pros and cons of each finalist to Montana's Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton Christian. Christian and the Montana University System's Board of Regents will then select Montana Tech's next chancellor from the group of four.
"I think we'll make a decision fairly quickly after the ninth," Tessman said. "I think we can be hopeful that we'll have the next chancellor identified in April."