UM to Present Honorary Doctorates to Acclaimed Native Poet, Iconic Set Designer

MISSOULA – Mandy Smoker Broaddus is a former Montana poet laureate who helped implement the Indian Education Act for All Act across the state. John Shaffner is a legendary Hollywood production designer who created sets for many of television’s most beloved shows.

Both will receive an honorary doctorate this spring from the University of Montana.

On March 16 the state Board of Regents approved UM’s request to present the doctorates during Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 13. The two will serve as UM Commencement speakers, with Smoker Broadus speaking at the morning ceremony and Shaffner speaking in the afternoon.

“Mandy and John are both extraordinary UM alumni whose creative talents have had tremendous impact in the world,” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “They are leaders in their respective fields, and it is our great privilege to present them with honorary doctorates.”

Smoker Broaddus will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, and Shaffner will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

Mandy Smoker Broaddus

A picture of Mandy Smoker Broaddus.
Mandy Smoker Broaddus

Smoker Broaddus was born on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and is a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. She attended Pepperdine University for her undergraduate work, earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from UM in 2002, and pursued additional graduate studies at UCLA and the University of Colorado. She was awarded the Richard Hugo Memorial Scholarship at UM and also received the Arianna and Yellow Thunder Scholarship at UCLA.

In 2005 she published an acclaimed book of poetry titled “Another Attempt at Rescue,” which explores culture, language, identity, relationships and the natural world. Other publications followed, including 2022’s “Thunderous,” a children’s graphic novel she co-wrote with Natalie Peeterse whose central characters are all American Indian. The novel works to authentically represent Lakota values and traditions.

Early in her career, Smoker Broaddus taught at Fort Peck Community College and was dean of students at Frazer Public Schools. When the Montana Legislature funded the Indian Education for All Act in 2005, she joined the state Office of Public Instruction as the first Indian student achievement specialist in the Indian Education Program. She was promoted to director of Indian Education in 2009 and served in that role until 2018, becoming instrumental in helping classrooms across Montana learn more about Native history, contributions and issues.

At OPI, Smoker Broaddus also advanced the Schools of Promise initiative, which worked to close achievement gaps for Montana’s lowest-performing schools. In 2015 she was named Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association.

In 2019 Gov. Steve Bullock named Smoker Broaddus and Melissa Kwasny co-poet laureates for the state of Montana. They served in that role until 2021.

Now living in Helena, Smoker Broaddus is managing consultant for Native and culturally responsive education for Education Northwest, which works to address pressing education and youth-services needs across the region and nation. She also serves as a member of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education for the Department of Education and the Department of the Interior.

UM alumna Denise Juneau, who was Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2009 to 2017, wrote this of Smoker Broaddus: “She is a phenomenal role model who manages to be as comfortable as a data geek as she is a poet laureate. She is a teacher, mother, advocate and leader who has had significant influence in Montana and the nation. She ensures that tribal voices are included at every table she sits at and brings forward a view of building inclusive systems.”

John Shaffner

A picture of John Shaffner.
John Shaffner stands on the set of "Two and a Half Men."

Shaffner was born and raised in Missoula. He graduated from UM in 1974 with an undergraduate degree in drama, working with both the Missoula Children’s Theatre and the Bigfork Summer Playhouse during his early career. He went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University as he blazed a path that took him from Pittsburgh to New York City to star-studded Los Angeles.

Shaffner is one of the most celebrated and influential production designers in recent history. By one count, he has served as designer for 134 television pilots and 54 series, including hits such as “Friends,” “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Often sharing credit with his longtime partner and husband, Joe Stewart, Shaffner has won six Emmy awards: three for David Copperfield specials, two for “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and one for the “George Lopez” sitcom. He also won Art Directors Guild Awards for “The Big Bang Theory” and the “2006 Emmy Awards.” He has been nominated for major production design awards more than 70 times. John served as chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and established the Television Academy Honors. 

Shaffner has maintained strong ties with UM, mentoring students and designing scenery for the Montana Repertory Theatre. He has served on the College of the Arts and Media advisory board since its inception and is a recipient of UM’s “Odyssey of the Stars,” which raises scholarships and other funding for CAM. Now retired and living in Missoula, Shaffner will emcee and design the look of the 2023 “Odyssey” on Saturday, April 1.

His letters of recommendation for the honorary doctorate were glowing:

“Hollywood lost a legend in production design when John decided to retire,” wrote Barbara Bruce, a producer for “The Conners.” “I don’t think there is another production designer who has designed sets for as many episodes of television as John.”

J.K. Simmons, the UM alumnus who won an Academy Award for his role in “Whiplash,” wrote: “John Shaffner was a legend by the time I started my education at UM. His work raised the bar for aspiring designers and is still spoken of with reverence in Montana theatre circles.”

Francoise Cherry-Cohen, a production designer for “Bob Hearts Abishola,” wrote: “Not to mention he coined the fabulous name of the ’80s hit show ‘Star Search,’ chose the iconic, floral, tropical couch from ‘The Golden Girls’ and placed the golden picture frame around the apartment door’s peephole on ‘Friends.’”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-354-5659,