Email shows trustee pushed for Wyoming law school task force

The University of Wyoming College of Law. (Wikimedia Commons- click to enlarge)
The University of Wyoming College of Law. (Wikimedia Commons- click to enlarge)
By Gregory Nickerson
— December 17, 2013

When former University of Wyoming president Robert Sternberg suggested creating an advisory task force for the College of Law, he explained the idea came from informal conversations he had across the state. According to a set of emails obtained through a public records request by UW law student Mary Freeman, the more direct impetus for the task force came from university trustee David Palmerlee, an attorney from Buffalo.

The proposed task force was controversial. Some in the law school worried it would focus too much on energy and natural resources law without sufficiently involving faculty and students at the College of Law. Former College of Law dean Stephen Easton resigned in protest of the formation of the task force. Easton clashed with Sternberg at a public town hall meeting regarding the task force in early November.

In subsequent weeks, tensions above and beyond the School of Law task force escalated between Sternberg and the university community, culminating in Sternberg’s resignation on November 14. By that time, interim provost Dick McGinity and interim dean Jacquelyn Bridgeman had significantly altered the task force plan in an attempt to account for student and faculty concerns.

The task force idea

In an email dated October 6, Sternberg conferred with university attorney Richard Miller, interim provost Dick McGinity, Palmerlee, trustee chair Dave Bostrom, and university vice president for external affairs Chris Boswell over the possible structure of the Wyoming law school task force, as well as potential nominees.

Sternberg thought the task force would be similar to the Wyoming Governor’s Energy Engineering S.T.E.M. Integration Task Force (WYGEESIT), appointed by Gov. Mead, that set a new direction for the College of Engineering, except that the College of Law task force would be appointed by university leadership, and would not have any money attached to its recommendations.

Sternberg wrote that the task force would, “consider how to move forward with the law school, particularly with regard to energy, natural resource, water, and environmental law, but not necessarily limited to those areas.”

Sternberg wrote that the idea for the task force came from David Palmerlee, who had discussed the idea with UW attorney Richard Miller.

Palmerlee initially suggested to Sternberg a number of candidates who might serve on the advisory committee:

  • Marilyn Kite, UW J.D. ’74, Chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court
  • John Burman, UW Carl M. Williams Professor of Law and Ethics
  • Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette). UW JD ’84, Wyoming Speaker of the House
  • Pete Michael, Wyoming Attorney General
  • Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), UW J.D. ‘73
  •  David Palmerlee, UW JD ’72, university trustee

Later on, the proposed membership changed, as Kite withdrew her name from consideration, and Cheyenne attorney and lobbyist Larry Wolfe was proposed to chair the task force. Wolfe is partner in the Holland & Hart law firm, specializing in natural resources law, mineral royalties, and taxation.

Sternberg noted in the email that the College of Law should be represented on the task force. “In order to avoid repeating the political problems that arose from the last task force, I think it would be essential to appoint at least one person from the law school and one person from academic affairs,” Sternberg wrote. “I also think we would want to get nominations from the law school faculty, among other people.”

Sternberg suggested that Wyoming Democrats Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) and former governors and lawyers Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal might be consulted to provide additional names of nominees.

In response to Sternberg’s email, university general counsel Rick Miller wrote, “We can take a little time on appointees. Several factors to consider.” In a comment that foreshadowed later opposition to the task force’s primary focus on energy law, Miller wrote, “Need a broader charge than these topics perhaps.”

Interim provost McGinity replied in support of the task force, writing in an email, “I am strongly in favor. The timing could not be better. Let’s do it.”

Palmerlee’s suggestion that the task force advise on energy, natural resource, water and environmental law and other areas may stem from his experience as an attorney practicing in Buffalo at Palmerlee and Durrant. The firm has represented Sinclair refinery, PacifiCorp (also known in Wyoming as Rocky Mountain Power), and other energy clients on water law and compliance with state and federal environmental regulations.

The firm also specializes in the fields of business law, real estate, estate planning, and personal injury defense. WyoFile contacted Palmerlee regarding this story, but Palmerlee declined to comment, deferring to trustee president Dave Bostrom of Worland.

Palmerlee was appointed to the university board of trustees by Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) in 2005, and reappointed under Gov. Matt Mead (R) in 2011 for a term that runs until 2017.

During the announcement of Sternberg’s resignation, trustee chair Dave Bostrom made clear that the trustees stood behind the former president’s actions, including the steps taken to create a School of Law task force.

“The board fully accepts and endorses the personnel changes and changes in direction at the university that have taken place in the last several months that emphasize and reinforce the university’s land-grant mission with service to the people of Wyoming, its state government and the economy,” Bostrom said.

In an interview with WyoFile, Bostrom further stated that external reviews help the university achieve the land grant mission. He thought outside analysis should include input from all constituencies, meaning students, faculty, administration, public, industry, and state government. He held up the College of Engineering task force as an example of gathering useful input that moves the university forward.

“If that was effective for the engineering task force, why can’t that format of having an outside analysis work in other units?” Bostrom said. “I for one don’t fear having an external review of any unit on campus. … The question isn’t whether we are doing anything right or wrong. The question is if we are doing what is needed.”

Changes to the task force plan

By the time Sternberg had resigned, the plan for the task force had transformed from the initial plans. On November 13, the day before Sternberg’s resignation, interim law dean Jacquelyn Bridgeman wrote an email to law students explaining that she would choose task force members, in cooperation with associate College of Law dean Matt Wilson and provost/vice president of Academic Affairs Dick McGinity.

Bridgeman further wrote that the task force would include College of Law student government president Baend Buus and student-faculty representative Brianne Phillips. Other members would be drawn from “faculty members, and representatives of the College of Law’s numerous constituencies including but not limited to the College of Law Advisory Board, the Wyoming State Bar, the UW Board of Trustees, the state judiciary, each house of the state legislature, the UW Foundation, and employers of College of Law graduates.”

In a meeting held November 15, law student Mary Freeman asked trustees how they planned to move forward with the law school task force. Dick McGinity, who was named acting university president and then interim president, replied that all plans for a law task force would be put on hold until January.

Before moving on to the next presidential search, Bostrom said that the trustees are hoping to create an atmosphere of stability. He commended the employees of the university for their work during the recent months of upheaval and leadership changes.

“The work of the university never stopped. It was ongoing all the time,” Bostrom said. “Even when the turmoil was going on, the faculty and staff were still doing their jobs, teaching students, doing their research. … We’ve got great faculty and staff that did good work even during that period.”

Sternberg email on creating College of Law advisory task force

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com. Follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY
 
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Published on December 17, 2013

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