Robert Sternberg resigns as University of Wyoming president

Former president Robert Sternberg poses at the Dick and Lynne cheney Plaza at the University Wyoming during his first trip to campus. (University of Wyoming photo — click to enlarge)

Former president Robert Sternberg poses at the Dick and Lynne Cheney Plaza at the University of Wyoming during his first trip to campus. He spent 4.5 months in the position. (University of Wyoming photo — click to enlarge)

By Gregory Nickerson
— November 15, 2013

Robert Sternberg has resigned from the position of president at the University of Wyoming. The board of trustees announced Sternberg’s resignation at a press conference held on the evening of Thursday, November 14. The news came after trustees met all day in executive session, culminating weeks of turmoil over high profile dismissals and resignations on the campus.

“If what you are doing is no longer optimal for the university and the state, you step down,” Sternberg told WyoFile on Friday.

Board of trustees persident Dave Bostrom speaks at a press conference as acting university president looks on. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Board of trustees president Dave Bostrom speaks at a press conference as acting university president Dick McGinity looks on. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Dick McGinity, who holds the position of interim provost/vice president for academic affairs, will step into the president’s role, effective immediately. He called for calm and made no direct allusions to the personnel controversies that roiled the campus.

“I urge everyone to go back to work,” McGinity said at the Thursday press conference. “The faculty knows what it needs to do. The students are plenty busy. The researchers are busy. It’s time to focus on getting the semester successfully concluded. Anything I can do to help, that is what I will do.”

McGinity began the semester as a professor in the School of Business, but then was tapped for the interim provost post in September to replace former provost Myron Allen who Sternberg asked to resign.

“This is a role that I accept with some regret,” McGinity said of his additional role as acting university president. “I am assuming this role for the period of time that the trustees think is appropriate. My immediate priorities will be to restore a sense of calm and stability and encourage the ongoing work of the university.”

McGinity still holds the vice president for academic affairs position. Bostrom said the trustees had not finalized any changes to McGinity’s compensation, or any plans to bring on additional personnel.

Sternberg began work in July after the Board of Trustees hired him under a controversial closed search process. On Monday, Sternberg told the Casper Star-Tribune that, “I am doing exactly what they hired me to do.”

After the all-day closed door meeting, the board expressed support for the personnel changes that occurred under President Sternberg.

A crowd gathers in anticipation of the press conference held in the rotunda of Coe library at 5:30 pm Thursday night. Well over 200 students, faculty, and members of the public attended. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

A crowd gathers in anticipation of the press conference held in the rotunda of Coe Library at 5:30 pm Thursday night. Well over 200 students, faculty, and members of the public attended. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

“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 a statement at the press conference Thursday.

In an interview with WyoFile Friday morning, Bostrom reiterated that the board did not ask Sternberg to resign.

“[Sternberg] and I had a conversation about it that there might have been some members of the board who were not comfortable with certain things, nothing having to do with the personnel changes. And visiting with Bob he felt that it was time for him [to resign]. He said that it was not a good fit,” Bostrom said. While the trustees said they support the personnel changes, the atmosphere on campus and Sternberg’s relationship with faculty seemed to have soured to the point that he could no longer effectively do his job.

Sternberg said the following in an interview with WyoFile:

“I had a conversation with Dave Bostrom and my impression was there was a lot of faculty push back to some of the personnel changes. In terms of policy changes I don’t think their life really changed. There was unrest from faculty. The faculty, some of them talked to the board about their dissatisfaction. I don’t know what any individual on the board was thinking. But it sounded like from Dave [Bostrom] I no longer had 100 percent support, and I felt you can no longer do this job if you no longer have the support of all the trustees. If I don’t have 98 percent, then I don’t feel like I can successfully move forward. That was my impression. I might have been wrong. I did what I thought was best for the university and the state of Wyoming. It’s not about me or a particular person. It’s about what is best for the university and the state, and it’s best that I not be there.”

Bostrom would not clarify which trustees did not support Sternberg. “I would not under any circumstances reveal which trustees might have lost confidence,” he said. “I won’t speak for any other board member. I will speak with the board of trustees as a whole.”

Others in university administration told WyoFile that the manner of changes under Sternberg became a problem. “Change is always difficult at academic institutions,” said Alyson Hagy interim associate provost for undergraduate education. “I don’t think it was the fact of change. I think it was how the change was implemented and the fact that why changes were being made was not clearly articulated to faculty staff and students.”

“It led to some distrust about what was happening,” added David Jones, interim associate provost for academic personnel.

Termination agreement

Sternberg’s resignation is formally effective on December 31st, but he is on administrative leave as of today. His annual base salary for the 2013 fiscal year was $425,000 plus $75,000 in deferred compensation to be deposited into an account of Sternberg’s choosing. He was hired on a three-year contract that paid $1.5 million including housing allowances and other benefits.

According to a termination agreement obtained by WyoFile, Sternberg will receive what amounts to six months of pay and deferred compensation. That amounts to $212,500 in pay and $37,500 in deferred compensation. The university will pay an additional $325,000 to Sternberg between January 1, 2014, and January 10, 2014. Since he will no longer be an employee at that point, this money could be viewed as a severance payment. In total, university payments to Sternberg will amount to $575,000.

The board of trustees meeting room on the top floor of Coe library, where an executive session lasting eight hours was held on November 14, 2013 to negotiate the terms of Sterberg's resignation. The process was slowed down because with Sternberg's lawyer in Washington D.C. had to attend to other matters during the day. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

The board of trustees meeting room on the top floor of Coe Library, where an executive session lasting eight hours was held on November 14, 2013, to negotiate the terms of Sternberg’s resignation. The process was slowed down because Sternberg’s lawyer in Washington D.C. had to attend to other matters during the day. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Under Sternberg’s original contract, he would have had the option to “retreat” to a faculty position at the university, but Bostrom said that won’t happen. “If he voluntarily resigns, he does not have that option to retreat to the faculty. He was not asked to resign,” Bostrom told WyoFile.

In addition to the salary and severance pay, the termination agreement allows Sternberg to keep using the university-owned house he is renting for $1,100 until May 31, 2014. He will not be reimbursed for expenses after November 14, and he will no longer have access to a university car or the president’s personal cabin in Centennial, Wyoming.

The termination agreement states that, “The parties further agree that neither shall at any time publicly criticize or disparage the other.” It also indemnifies Sternberg from liability for actions he took while president, and holds each party accountable for upholding the terms of the agreement.

Concerns over transparency

Sternberg’s resignation caps a year in which university faculty, students, staff, and media expressed concerns regarding transparency about key leadership decisions at the state’s flagship educational institution.

The first two weeks of November brought those concerns to a head. On November 1, Former law dean Stephen Easton wrote a public letter explaining his resignation in protest to the formation of a task force that would advise the College of Law. That led to a town hall meeting a week later during which Easton confronted Sternberg before an audience of 100 students.

At the same time, several faculty have pointed out contradictory stories emerging after the departure of former provost Myron Allen and education dean Kay Persichitte. Sternberg asked Allen to resign, then later said he regretted accepting Allen’s resignation.

Education Dean Kay Persichitte was asked to resign by McGinity, a fact she confirmed in an email to WyoFile. Sternberg asserted that asking Persichitte to resign was not his decision.

“I think Dick and I had talked (about the dean of education) and discussed with members of the board of trustees, and there was a feeling that we might be going in a different direction, but how that conversation went with Kay and whether it could have gone another way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Sternberg told WyoFile in an interview last week.

Subsequently, a letter released on the faculty email list by education professor Steven Bialostok related that Sternberg told faculty of the College of Education on October 30 that Persichitte wanted to resign.

“There is too much concentration on individuals, my story and his story and the other person’s story. I don’t really believe in doing that,” Sternberg told WyoFile. “I think I did the right thing as president. I did the right thing stepping down. Not that I couldn’t have done better, but I tried to do what is best for the university and the state. I think McGinity will do a great job going forward and the team at the university. It’s a wonderful team.”

Acting president Dick McGinity sits next to trustees president Dave Bostrom at a board of trustees meeting on November 15, 2013. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Acting president Dick McGinity, at left, sits next to Dave Bostrom at a board of trustees meeting on November 15, 2013. It was McGinity’s first day in the office. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

The larger question of transparency has focused on Sternberg’s own arrival at the University of Wyoming, which came after trustees conducted a closed search process that withheld the names of candidates until finally announcing four finalists just before the final selection, which was made in February at a meeting in Denver.

Sternberg left the provost position at Oklahoma State University to come here. He left UW quietly, still expressing his commitment to the school.

“I care a great deal about this university and I have come to realize as wonderful as the University of Wyoming is, it may not be the best fit for me as president. So I tendered my resignation,” Sternberg said, according to a press release put out by the board.

Asked what his future plans are, Sternberg said he will immediately start looking for new employment. “I have 2-year-old triplets. I’ve got to find another job. I don’t have any plans other than to find something.”

The following is the Agreement for Termination of Contract of Employment document between Robert Sternberg and the University of Wyoming board of trustees:

 

The following is the original Contract of Employment between Robert Sternberg and the University of Wyoming:

 

For more on the University of Wyoming and Robert Sternberg, read these related WyoFile reports:

UW professor emeritus Peter Shive: ‘Why am I still here?’, guest column, November 9, 2013 
Students and faculty question spate of resignations at University of Wyoming under Sternberg, by Gregory Nickerson, November 5, 2013 
University of Wyoming shouldn’t use state funds to find nebulous winning formula, perspective by Kerry Drake, October 29, 2013 
University of Wyoming president reaches out to Wind River Indian Reservation, by Ron Feemster, October 16, 2013 
Amid leadership changes, Sternberg wants University of Wyoming to be No. 1, by Gregory Nickerson, September 3, 2013 
New University of Wyoming president Robert Sternberg aims to invest in people, by Gregory Nickerson, May 7, 2013 
Point and Counterpoint: Closed UWYO Presidential Search Process, by Gregory Nickerson, February 6, 2013
— 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
If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Published on November 15, 2013

{ 8 comments }

Larry Antelope November 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I knew President Sternberg wouldnt last long. Wyoming is just too far behind in everyway.

givemeabreak November 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

Let me see if I understand this: Sternberg resigns, voluntarily – let me stress this, VOLUNTARILY – and he still gets paid? What a sweetheart deal. Typical backroom political dealing among our legislative “leaders.”

Bob LeResche November 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm

This is a great piece of reporting by Greg Nickerson. A model of deep digging but “fair & balanced” writing in the real sense. Just the facts, ma’am.
But, still, I’ve always suspected that Robert Hoskins has a special sense of what really happened — and I can’t wait to see Jeff Lockwood’s treatment sometime after the stew has thickened a bit.

Dave Nelsen November 19, 2013 at 9:02 am

PATHETIC. Heinous secrecy.

DCamp November 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Sadly, this was just a matter of too much change too fast. Not that the university doesn’t need it. The trustees can go back to planning a new building, the staff can wander back to sleep in the cobwebs of academic irrelevancy, snuggled up with their electronic copies of uniregs. Safe in the knowledge that progress and vibrancy has been fought off another day.

Jenifer Budrow Stoesz, PhD November 16, 2013 at 11:40 am

Amen to both above comments. As a child growing up in Wyoming in a prominent newspaper family, I’m familiar with political drama, closed door decision-making, etc. I’m glad Sternberg resigned. I hope the Trustees can move forward by backing the sensible, fair thinking of the University personnel and people of Wyoming. We don’t need another fiasco like this one – ever.

Robert Hoskins November 16, 2013 at 10:02 am

It’s not too hard to figure out what happened. Sternberg was carrying out the policies dictated by the Trustees to the letter, policies designed to give the Wyoming oligarchy, particularly the minerals industry, even greater control over the university. However, the Trustees, like all oligarchs, were clueless about how their autocratic policies would effect and be interpreted by the “little people” in the university trenches. The result was “blowback”–bad consequences that could have been easily foreseen if not for the Trustees and Sternberg’s ignorance and arrogance. (I loved professor Donal O’Toole’s description in the Laramie Boomerang of Sternberg as “terminally narcissistic.” The same could be said of the Trustees). As the blowback from the university trenches went beyond all possibility of control, the Trustees lost their nerve and threw their boy Sternberg under the bus to protect themselves.

The Trustees are going to have a hell of a time finding a new president. Even “terminally narcissistic” candidates might think twice about going to Laramie.

In any case, the moral of the story is that from time to time, democracy works, even if it’s painful.

Graybull November 15, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Business as usual for this crowd………and I mean ALL involved…….drama and games on the taxpayer dime.

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