University of Wyoming students gather for an opening week barbecue at the start of the fall 2013 semester. The new President Robert Sternberg aims to make the university the top land grant school in the nation (WyoFile photo/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

University of Wyoming students gather for an opening week barbecue at the start of the fall 2013 semester. The new President Robert Sternberg aims to make the university the top land grant school in the nation. (WyoFile photo/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Amid leadership changes, Sternberg wants University of Wyoming to be No. 1

By Gregory Nickerson
— September 3, 2013

Students at the University of Wyoming started their first classes of the semester last week, as the institution undergoes an administrative transition following the arrival of new president Robert Sternberg.

During the summer, Provost Myron Allen, three-vice provosts, and the university’s Deans of Arts and Sciences, Business, and Engineering all left their positions.

These departures could give the impression that the university leadership is in a state of upheaval, but President Strenberg insists that is not the case.

“I really appreciate what the people here did before,” Sternberg told WyoFile. “When there is a new administration there is always some turnover. That’s pretty routine.”

Dr. Robert Sternberg University of Wyoming President

University of Wyoming President Robert Sternberg

Sternberg explained that each of the administrators chose to step down on their own, not because they were fired.

“Most people do administration for a few years, and they pick a time when their work is done and they are ready to return to teaching and research,” he said.

No. 1 land grant school

While the leadership team in Old Main is changing, Sternberg has a very specific vision for where he wants the university to go.

In a recent piece published online, Sternberg asserted his ambition that the University of Wyoming become the top land grant school in the country.

He intends to do that by pursuing a mission he presented at many public appearances made over the summer:

“Become the #1 land-grant institution in the country by educating ethical servant leaders who will make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the world.”

“Everything I do as president is motivated by that one sentence,” Sternberg said.

At an event held in Jackson, Wyo., last week, Sternberg further delineated his vision, saying he wants the University of Wyoming to embrace a Jeffersonian model of open access for students of all abilities, with the hope of bringing out ethical leadership qualities in each student.

As a land grant school with less restrictive qualifications for admission, Sternberg says the University of Wyoming stands in stark contrast to elite schools like Yale, where he taught for many years. He says elite schools historically followed a Hamiltonian ideal in seeking to filter out leaders with the proper social status or wealth, while today they filter mostly by academic credentials and test scores.

“The set of analytical skills evaluated in the ACT [test] is only a small sliver of what you need to be an ethical leader,” Sternberg said. “The tests don’t tell you where a person can go, they don’t even tell you where a person is.”

Currently, the University of Wyoming admits students with a minimum grade point average of 2.25, so long as they also have a 20 on the ACT test. Sternberg plans to remake the admissions process at Wyoming to have a more holistic view of the attributes of each student. He’d like to see applicants develop a portfolio that demonstrates their creativity, wisdom, responsibility, teamwork, and other characteristics.

“I would move away from standardized tests to electronic portfolios, where you show your leadership in business, music, or agriculture, a portfolio that shows who you are and what you’ve learned over a period of time,” Sternberg said.

After years spent studying and teaching at places like Stanford and Yale, Sternberg developed a preference for land grant schools, which he likened to a pump that takes incoming students and elevates them to a new level of knowledge and practical skills, enabling them to become leaders.

“Almost anyone who works hard and has a good work ethic and wants to contribute can become an ethical servant leader,” he said.

Sternberg plans to create an ethical leadership track, where students would study real-world examples of ethical issues in the course of their regular classes. To graduate in the track, students would need to complete a senior capstone project analyzing an ethical issue pertaining to their area of study.

No. 1 in the country, or No. 1 for Wyoming?

Some educational deans at the university have questions about the goal of being the number one land grant school.

“How do you measure what is the top school? I’m not quite sure how you measure that,” Dr. Robert Ettema told WyoFile.

Last week Ettema stepped down from his postion as Dean of the College of Engineering, after serving for seven years. (President Sternberg noted that Ettema made his decision to leave the College of Engineering before Sternberg arrived on campus.) The engineering school is in the midst of a legislatively-mandated effort to become a “top-tier” program, which is backed by over $115 million in state funds and private donations.

Ettema said it is important to make sure that the legislature’s goal of becoming “top-tier” meshes well with the President’s goal of becoming the top land grant school. Some of Sternberg’s priorities, like his emphasis on ethics, are not heavily emphasized in plans released for the engineering school earlier this year.

Ettema said he would prefer that the university pursue a more general goal that didn’t seek to put Wyoming at the top of a list of other land grant schools. “Having high and lofty goals like that is admirable, but quite a tall order,” Ettema said. “I think a good goal to strive for is to be known nationally for a very high quality competitive programs that serve Wyoming and the region.”

In a sense, that’s also what Sternberg wants. Despite his very pointed goal of becoming the number one land grant school, he favors Wyoming-specific measures for judging how well the school is doing.

“Our mission is different than Harvard’s,” Sternberg told WyoFile. “We have to evaluate ourselves according to our specific mission, not somebody else’s.”

Sternberg plans to judge the university’s success by tracking whether or not students get jobs that are meaningful to them after graduating, and whether employee recruiters seek out Wyoming graduates on an ongoing basis.

Further, he says the institution should be judged by how much it contributes to the economic and social development of the state, and whether companies and non-profits invest in the university because they can benefit from the research and development conducted there.

That metric has long been a part of the university’s land grant mission, especially in the College of Agriculture. For generations, farmers and ranchers have looked to the university to develop best practices and share them with the public. The College of Agriculture operates with a three-fold mission of research, classroom education, and outreach through county extension offices across the state.

Bret Hess serves as associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture, and director of the agriculture experiment stations. He says Sternberg’s goal of being number one could be a good thing. “I think there would be some benefits with the college of agriculture … that would strengthen the tripartitie base of the land grant mission,” he said.

As the semester progresses, Sternberg will put together the administrative team that will advance his goals for the university.

“The new leadership will be people who [are invested in] the land grant mission and this Jeffersonian ideal of ethical leadership development through education,” Sternberg said. “The people I’m hiring are people who share that vision and share that view.”

Sternberg has recently contracted with search firms to look for new deans for the College of Engineering and the College of Business. He also recently hired two interim positions: Dick McGinity as interim provost, and Khaled Gasem as interim engineering dean.

McGinity is the University of Wyoming’s Bill Daniels Chair of Business Ethics, and has a background in finance and venture capital. Sternberg previously knew Gasem during his tenure as provost at Oklahoma State University, where Gasem held an endowed chair and was head of the School of Chemical Engineering.

It remains to be seen who will fill these and other administrative jobs on a more permanent basis. “There is a lot of change happening in a short time, and hopefully it all leads to excellent developments for the university, ” Ettema said.

For more on the University of Wyoming, read these WyoFile pieces:

Note: This article was updated to clarify that Robert Ettema’s decision to leave his position as Dean of the College of Engineering preceded Sternberg’s arrival on campus.
 
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.
 
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Published on September 2, 2013

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