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Former MSU President Bill Tietz

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Bill Tietz, the hard-charging maverick whose tenure as Montana State University president laid the foundation for the Bozeman campus to become a modern research university, has died.

“It is with great sadness that I write today with news of the passing of Montana State University President Emeritus William J. Tietz,” President Waded Cruzado wrote Thursday on MSU’s website.

Tietz, 93, died at home Wednesday surrounded by his family, Cruzado wrote.

“For many of us, the name Bill Tietz will forever signify the ushering of Montana State University into the modern era,” Cruzado wrote. “By any account, he was a transformative president of Montana State University, moving mountains often with little more than his passion, willpower and large personality.”

Tietz served as president for 13 years, from 1977 to 1990. He succeeded a president who was considered a decent man but extremely cautious.

“Bill Tietz came on like gangbusters,” MSU historian Jeff Safford said in a 2011 Chronicle interview, when he ranked Tietz as one of the greatest presidents in the university’s more than century of history.

“Bill was a man of extraordinary action. Aggressive and brassy,” Safford said. “He was such a bear in the Legislature — so verbal, so bright and argumentative. Bill stood up to them.”

Tietz supported innovation in education, pushed for programs to welcome more Native American students to campus and especially promoted research, which today at MSU has grown to a more than $120 million-a-year enterprise.

“He made us into a research institution,” Safford said.

Tietz’s “bulldozer” style ticked off a lot of people – farmers and ranchers, old-timers, and newspaper reporters, whom he taunted as “harpies,” and especially then-Gov. Ted Schwinden.

“I must have irritated a lot of people,” Tietz said then. “In some cases, if you’re going to do anything, you have to irritate a few people.”

Tietz came to MSU in 1977 from Colorado State University, where he was dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Cruzado wrote that Tietz has been credited with supporting the development of the undergraduate core curriculum, expanding international studies and re-activating the University Honors Program. He launched the university’s Tech Park as an incubator to turn university research into commercial enterprises and to boost Montana’s then depressed economy.

He raised salaries on campus. During his tenure MSU expanded Shakespeare in the Parks, KUSM, the Museum of the Rockies and the MSU Alumni Association. He was an avid supporter of Bobcat Athletics programs, including its national championship football team in 1984.

Tietz oversaw the construction of buildings critical to the growth of MSU, Cruzado said. That included remodeling the Strand Union Building and constructing the Visual Communications Building, Plant Growth Center and Animal Resources Center, which was named in his honor in 2007.

At the 2013 ceremony held to honor Tietz and his team, he was celebrated as a courageous and combative university president who started MSU’s transformation into a modern research university. His son, John, said then that one of his dad’s favorite sayings was “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

“It’s been great, been a great ride, and I wouldn’t have missed it,” Tietz told the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation.

Tietz had great energy. After he retired, he was pushing 80 when he went on a 250-mile wilderness canoe trip.

“If you get a few presidents like that, you wouldn’t need to mine coal,” joked Stuart Knapp, who served as vice president for academic affairs under Tietz.

In the 1980s, when Montana’s economy was “horrible,” Wessel said, “Bill was absolutely crystal clear that if you want to turn this around, you have to invest in your universities.”

He turned down chances to go to other universities, said former state legislator Dorothy Bradley. “Bill Tietz absolutely loved MSU,” she said, “and MSU was his life’s central mission.”

“If you’ve got a choice between smart and lucky, pick lucky,” Tietz once said in an interview. “Things have broken beautifully for Bozeman, for Montana State University, and it’s been a real scream to be part of it.”

“He never stopped caring about Montana State,” Cruzado said.

Last spring the Board of Regents approved unanimously conferring an honorary doctorate on Tietz, the university’s highest honor, Cruzado wrote. He was supposed to receive it at May’s graduation ceremony, plans that were delayed by the pandemic. Now he will receive the honorary degree posthumously.

A memorial fund has been created at the MSU Alumni Foundation to support graduate students in honor of President Tietz.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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