Open or Closed Search: Picking the next University of Wyoming presidentBy Gregory Nickerson December 3, 2013
When the University of Wyoming hired Robert Sternberg as its new president in February 2013, it did so through a closed search process that, after legal challenges, publicly revealed a handful of candidates who remained in the finalist stage. As a result, the university didn’t get the full benefits of a closed search that attracted finalists who were sitting presidents. Neither did it get the advantage of a fully open process, where the public got to meet candidates in person. Instead, trustees announced candidates and quickly conducted interviews at an executive session meeting held in Colorado.
Less than 9 months later, Sternberg resigned as president of the university, leaving questions about how the search process contributed to recent upheaval on campus, and how the school should proceed with selecting its next leader.
Some on campus believe the closed search process contributed to bad relations between Sternberg and the university. When trustee president Dave Bostrom announced Sternberg’s resignation at a press conference in November, veterinary professor Donal O’Toole pointedly asked the trustees to address what he called “the elephant in the room.”
“This is the second time we have had a botched job hiring a president,” O’Toole said, referring to Sternberg and past president Tom Buchanan, who was chosen only after all the other candidates dropped out. “The trustees completely owned this process whereby Bob Sternberg was hired. Do the trustees accept any responsibility for what has now transpired? When you come to do another search, will you eliminate the involvement of employees in screening candidates?”
(A number of faculty did participate in the screening process that hired Sternberg, but not to the degree O’Toole would have liked.)
Several news outlets including the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Powell Tribune, have come out against the closed process and drawn the connection to recent turbulence that culminated in Sternberg’s early resignation. They have also pointed to successful open searches at community colleges. Kerry Drake wrote an opinion piece in WyoFile stating that a transparent process would increase the chances that the best candidate would be picked.
“The disruption that Mr. Sternberg leaves in his wake is directly related to the hiring process,” wrote the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “Had he met the university community, and the stakeholders met with him, perhaps there might have been a greater understanding on his part of the culture he was entering.”
Not everyone holds that point of view. “How do you measure someone’s method of effecting change other than talking to their references?” said Scott Neu, a UW alum and vice chair of the University of Wyoming Foundation board who participated in the search.
“If you bring people to campus and have them talk to faculty and staff I’m not sure you get any better measure of how they affect change than in a closed process,” Neu said. Still, he acknowledged that, “it would have been helpful to have those candidates meeting with faculty, staff, and students.”
Looking beyond the issue of campus visits, Neu said that opening the search process at the last minute narrowed Wyoming’s choices and caused several good candidates to withdraw. When the search remained closed, the eight finalists included two standing university presidents. After the search opened, the remaining slate had just four provosts, including Robert Sternberg.
“You never will know who would have been president if we had stayed closed the whole way, but I can tell you it didn’t help,” Neu said. “As much as we love transparency in this state, I would sacrifice transparency for quality. If you ran a closed process all the way through, it reduces a lot of noise that is not helpful to the mission.”
That said, Neu recognizes that even a confidential search can result in a “mis-hire” of an individual who doesn’t have the right traits for the particular institution. Outside the state, some higher education observers think that Sternberg’s leadership style, not the manner in which he was hired, is at the root of Wyoming’s recent university drama.
In a column about Sternberg’s tenure published last week in Inside Higher Ed, consultant and former university president Susan Resnick Pierce noted Sternberg made decisions without explaining his rationale to the satisfaction of faculty and students. The manner in which he was hired didn’t factor in Pierce’s analysis.
The question of whether the University of Wyoming will parse the controversy over the search process from Sternberg’s record as a leader remains open. The answer will have implications in the selection of the next university president.
How the search began
University trustees designed the presidential search process in special meetings held last fall. Before the search began, a sub-committee of trustees recommended that candidates be kept confidential.
That recommendation came in a report from trustee John MacPherson, a lawyer from Saratoga, who told his colleagues that confidentiality would attract the best candidates, according to the minutes of the October 1 special meeting. The only trustee who argued against confidentiality was Ann Rochelle of Casper, who strongly supported a public announcement of finalists, followed by having them visit campus.
In the October 12 special trustees meeting that WyoFile attended, trustees interviewed three separate search firms to manage the process for the university: Storbeck/Pimentel, Greenwood & Asher, and Academic Search. All three firms said that confidential searches attract better candidates. After hearing the advice of the three firms, Wyoming’s trustees adopted a resolution requiring search committee members to sign an agreement not to reveal names of candidates.
Closed searches are becoming increasingly common across the country because candidates want confidentiality so they can stay in their current jobs in the event they aren’t hired. Some public campuses have been punitive to their presidents and provosts who go out on the job market.
Once they opted for the closed search process, the University of Wyoming trustees then created a presidential profile based in part on public input, while the Greenwood & Asher search firm shopped it around to potential job candidates. The firm then ran applicants through three tiers of selection committees composed of faculty, staff, students, and outside constituents. The outside members included Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper); Jim Magagna, head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association; Paul Radakovich, VP of operations for Rocky Mountain Power; Cheyenne attorney John McKinley, and Casper College president Walt Nolte.
The initial screening committee began with 85 applicants, which search consultant Betty Asher judged to be an outstanding number. The committee then forwarded 15 top names to the second tier. The second committee then chose 8 candidates to forward to the trustees for a final selection.
“We had some very strong candidates put their names in the hat, many sitting presidents with established track records and an established body of work,” said Scott Neu. “In retrospect, the benefit of a closed process is you would hope to get a higher quality candidate pool. We got that.”
The confidential search process quickly became controversial. Three media outlets filed a lawsuit against the trustees in the last week of November 2012. The parties included Cheyenne Newspapers (Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang), Lee Enterprises (Casper Star-Tribune), and the Associated Press.
The public records case sought the release of travel documents relating to candidates coming to Laramie. By state law, state agencies are permitted to keep personnel decisions confidential, so the media outlets sought travel information to see who might be coming for interviews.
The university’s faculty senate discussed the search process at its December 10, 2012, meeting. “We the trustees are charged with a fiduciary responsibility of finding the best candidate,” Bostrom said during the meeting. “If we don’t operate a closed process, we will not have served the interest of the faculty, senate, students, staff, or the legislature.”
“We are part of a group that cares very deeply about the university,” Bostrom added. “We all want to find the best leader going forward. We may disagree a little on the process, but we all want to find the best individual.”
Donal O’Toole, a professor in the state veterinary laboratory, asked for transparency at the end of the search. “Nobody argues for a completely open process,” O’Toole said. “What I’m arguing for is that for the final part of the process, that the final candidates may be made known. … If we have a president so cautious that he won’t apply because he’s afraid of losing his present position, how courageous will he be here?”
Other professors didn’t feel so strongly about changing the format of the search to name the finalists. Associate professor Warrie Means from the Department of Animal Science remarked that neither a closed or open process could be seen as definitely superior.
“I think it is a matter of balance that there are advantages and disadvantages of both kinds of searches, and the trustees made a balanced decision to go with a confidential search,” Means said. “It is possible to make a mistake regardless of the process that we used. It gives me comfort that the next university president will serve at the pleasure of the trustees. If they make a mistake they won’t be afraid to rectify that.”
On January 23, 2013, Albany County District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell ruled that the names of the finalist candidates must be released. The university then lobbied in the legislature for a bill that would exempt the school from releasing the records. On January 24, Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) introduced House Bill 223, which allowed the University of Wyoming and community colleges to keep executive searches confidential if it was in the public interest.
House Bill 223 passed both chambers of the legislature, and Gov. Mead allowed it to become law without his signature, which was meant as a sign of his ambivalence. He issued a press release with the following statement:
“By not affixing my signature to this bill I wanted to express my concern about creating another exemption from disclosure under the Public Records Act. I did, however, want the search process at the University of Wyoming to play out under the conditions established for the applicants who put their names forward. I do not want to change the process midstream.”
Subsequently, the three media outlets filed another suit asking the university trustees to prove that keeping the names private was in the public interest. At that point, trustees had a short list of candidates, many of whom were on the cusp of receiving or accepting offers at other institutions. Rather than engage in the lawsuit and potentially lose candidates due to time constraints, the trustees chose on February 22 to reveal the names of those candidates willing to stay in a public race.
According to Bostrom, the eight finalists had originally included five provosts, two sitting presidents, and a non-academic candidate. Just four provosts stayed in the race when it became open. The Casper Star-Tribune ran an article on the background of the four candidates:
- Warwick Bayly, provost and executive vice president at Washington State University.
- Douglas D. Baker, provost and executive vice president at the University of Idaho.
- Kim Wilcox, former provost and executive vice president at Michigan State University.
- Robert Sternberg, provost at Oklahoma State University.
In announcing the names, the trustees oversaw a process that was neither fully confidential nor fully open, and Neu said that had a negative effect on the outcome. “By having the process forced open we lost some quality candidates,” Neu said.
“If we were going to open it, it would have been far better to open it at the very beginning,” he added. “You can’t switch your method of search midstream. You can’t go from closed to open and have an outstanding outcome.”
Trustees had planned from the beginning to interview the finalists at an off-campus location. They met with the four remaining candidates in Denver without direct community input or public introduction of the candidates. That didn’t go over well amongst some members of the university community.
“[The] trustees have a responsibility to be very transparent with how they are choosing candidates, and who they are, and allowing everyone to meet them and comment,” said Mary Freeman, a third year law student. “When the process is opaque you get a lot of fear and distrust, even if nothing untoward is happening.”
Freeman thinks a public introduction of candidates could have eased the transition that occurred when Robert Sternberg took the helm of the university. “He would have been able to build relationships earlier and he wouldn’t have been such an unknown when he showed up on campus in July and started making these major changes,” she said.
Jackson Clarendon, a third year undergraduate, took another view. “I don’t think the secrecy of the search had anything to do with how [Sternberg] handled the position,” he said.
While transparency is ideal, Clarendon thought it might not be practical in today’s competitive market for presidential candidates. “You can always hope for any institution to be as transparent as possible, whether government or a university, but as far as the practicality I’m not sure how possible it is to attract good people.”
The next president
Selecting a leader for a university is a complicated task involving large numbers of people and many forces pulling in opposite directions. Looking forward to the next University of Wyoming presidential search, there will no doubt be a spirited debate about the merits of a closed versus open process. On November 25, the university’s faculty senate met to discuss a non-binding resolution calling for an open search.
Whatever search process is ultimately chosen, observers say those who make the choice should take a close look at the leadership style of the individual candidates. That was the case former University of Puget Sound president Susan Resneck Pierce made in a column titled “Lessons from Wyoming” published by Inside Higher Education last week.
Pierce’s main theme was that a university thrives when a new president engineers a smooth transition of leadership and builds consensus around a vision commonly accepted by the university at large. Many of her ideas referenced difficulties Sternberg encountered at Wyoming.
In particular, Pierce noted that an incoming president must gain an in-depth, firsthand knowledge of their new institution before making any major changes. It’s important to successfully engage the people within the university whenever new initiatives are introduced, Pierce wrote. Any new undertaking must be evidence-based, feasible, and supported by all the necessary resources. Looking outside of campus, Pierce pointed out that trustees, legislators, and other observers of the university might not always have the best ideas for how the institution should be run.
When making high-level personnel decisions, Pierce said presidents should seek board approval. If needed, the president can make special arrangements to offer respected employees a graceful way to step down if they aren’t fully in support of the new direction. Once a person has been let go, the president should meet with the team affected by the decision and ask for their support going forward.
While each of these ideas could help prevent challenges at the university in the future, it’s not certain that any search process, whether confidential or transparent, can guarantee a good outcome. Even so, Neu said there is reason for optimism and an opportunity for honest self-appraisal at the university.
“The good news is, Wyoming folks are a very resilient tough people,” Neu said. “My guess is we will rally from this and be back a better stronger institution. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate how we got to where we are, and do everything we can to avoid a repeat.”
For Additional reading: Former provosts Myron Allen and Carol Frost composed a White Paper on planning for presidential succession in March of 2012.
October 12, 2012 Trustees Resolution on Search Process
Presidential Search profile
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY
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