Students and faculty question spate of resignations at University of Wyoming under Sternberg

The Engineering Building at the University of Wyoming. The university recieved about $51 million in stimulus funds, which were spent on building maintenance and academic research. (Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit/Flickr - click to enlarge)

The resignation of the dean of the the University of Wyoming College of Law inspired students and faculty to ask President Robert Sternberg for transparency about recent leadership changes. Out of 14 deans and provosts leading UW last spring, only three will remain in their positions as the fall semester draws to a close. (Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit/Flickr – click to enlarge)

By Gregory Nickerson
— November 5, 2013

The resignation of the Dean of the College of Law at the University of Wyoming last week has intensified discussion about a number of leadership changes that have occurred since the arrival of President Robert Sternberg in July.

Stephen Easton, who had served as law dean for five years, resigned due to concerns about an advisory task force that had been formed by President Sternberg. Easton felt the task force compromised the independence of the College of Law, and circumvented existing efforts to seek input from an existing Advisory and Alumni and members of the public, which includes the general counsel of energy companies.

“Important decisions affecting the College of Law have been made without meaningful consultation with me or others on the faculty. … I cannot continue to serve as your dean while critical decisions are made about the College of Law without the input of the administration and faculty of the College,” Easton wrote in his letter announcing his resignation.

Easton’s letter struck a chord for some in the university community. On Friday, retired geology professor Peter Shive wrote an email to a faculty email list asking questions about why so many deans and provosts had left their jobs in recent months. His letter sparked responses from former provost Myron Allen who related the story of his resignation.

“On July 23, the president, to whom I reported directly in an at-will capacity, asked me to resign. When a president asks a provost to resign, the provost has little choice,” Allen wrote.

The Laramie Boomerang later reported that Sternberg received Allen’s resignation “with great regret.”

Emeritus psychology professor Charles Ksir also wrote a letter to the UW faculty email list relating the story of Dean Kay Persichitte’s sudden resignation as head of the College of Education at the request of interim provost Dick McGinity:

“She received a call from the new interim provost, Dick McGinity, asking to meet. He came to her office. She asked, ‘what can I do for you, Dick?’. His reply, ‘You can give me your letter of resignation.'” Kay Persichitte confirmed the accuracy of the story in an email to WyoFile.

Ksir noted that when a provost asks a dean to resign there is little choice in the matter. Deans will often resign because it looks better on a resume than being fired, he wrote.

In an interview with WyoFile, Sternberg said he did not know the specifics of Dick McGinity’s conversation with Perischitte. “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. … I do think that she is very valuable to the College of Education and I hope she’ll continue to make a contribution to literacy and STEM education.”

After Persichitte’s resignation, Ksir decided to take his name out of the running for interim dean of the College of Education because, he said, of concerns that he would have to comply with decisions about the college made without his input.

Nicole Ballenger, associate provost for academic personnel, also responded to Peter Shive’s request for an explanation on the recent resignations. She will be  leaving her position to teach in the College of Agriculture next spring. Ballenger wrote in an email to faculty that she chose to resign against the protests of President Sternberg because, “I have a great department and things I want to do there before retiring in a few years.”

Without making it clear if she was referring to her own experience, or Dean Easton’s, Ballenger commented on the need for better communication within the university:

“I will, however, say — as did Dean Easton — that signals are important. When one learns about important changes that affect their job, or the role of their office, through emails or word of mouth, or because they were announced in forums where one was not present, that person knows that their ability to do their job is compromised. Not discussing important changes or decisions with the affected academic administrators is a sign that it’s time to move on, whether or not those changes or decisions are worthy ones.”

Open letter from law students

Dean Easton’s resignation letter also prompted response — from a group of law students that submitted an open letter to President Sternberg and media outlets on Monday asking for more transparency about the task force.

“Contrary to your position on ethical leadership, no public mention of the clandestine ‘task force’ was ever made to the students at the College of Law prior to Dean Easton’s resignation,” the letter stated. President Sternberg has made education on ethical leadership a central part of his mission.

The College of Law letter writers also had concerns that the new task force would focus too closely on energy law at the expense of other courses. In an interview with WyoFile, President Sternberg said the task force would have no authority to change policy at the law school. “I have no agenda for the law school other to have an advisory task force. It has no power to dictate what the law school will do,” he said. “There was no pressure from industry. I had a conversation with some trustees and we decided it would be a good idea.”

Sternberg said he was disappointed that the students had released the letter without contacting him first to fact check and hear his point of view about the task force. He noted that he makes himself available by phone, email, through a comment form on his website, and at listening sessions. “I don’t bite. If they think that I’m going to be irascible at least give me a try. If they think I stink, they can walk out. At least talk to me first,” he said.

Grant Smith, a third year law student, told WyoFile he and several other students used public documents in crafting their letter.

“We’re just asking for transparency to be involved in a dialog before the decisions are made. The facts we mentioned in our letter were in Dean Easton’s email and in the press release, which were made available to the public,” Smith said. “Ultimately, it is not our interest to make it adversarial or get into an argument with the president of the university. We just want to be included in the dialog.”

Recent changes in UW leadership

The University of Wyoming has ten deans, one for each of the seven colleges plus a Dean of Students, Dean of Outreach, and Dean of Libraries. All but three of those positions have turned over this year. In addition, the provost and all three associate provosts left their positions.

At least three campus leaders left because of differences with new administration:

  • Myron Allen, provost, resigned at request of President Sternberg in July.
  • Kay Persichitte, dean of the College of Education, was asked to resign by interim provost Dick McGinity.
  • Stephen Easton, dean of the College of Law, resigned due to formation of the Law School advisory task force. Read this letter for more. (President Sternberg asked Easton to remain in the position.)
In addition, all three associate provosts resigned over the summer and will return to teaching:
  • Nicole Ballenger, associate provost for academic personnel, was asked to stay in her provost position but chose to return to teaching in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics.
  • Carol Frost, associate provost for undergraduate education and academic budgets, returned to teaching in the Department of Geology.
  • Andy Hansen, associate provost for graduate and undergraduate studies, returned to teaching in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Three other Deans made the decision to resign before President Sternberg came to UW:

  • Dean Oliver Walter retired from his position as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences after the 2013 spring semester ended.
  • Robert Ettema, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, chose to resign before Sternberg arrived.
  • Maggie Murdock, Dean of the Outreach School, stepped down from her position over the summer to return the Political Science department.
Two Deans left after receiving job offers from other institutions:
  • Brent Hathaway, dean of the College of Business, left for a deanship at the UNLV business school.
  • David Cozzens, dean of students, left for a position at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth as associate vice chancellor and dean of campus life.

Three deans who were serving last spring are staying on:

  • Dean Frank Galey, of the College of Agriculture
  • Dean Joseph Steiner, of the College of Health Sciences
  • Dean of Libraries Mary Farrell

“I am not intending to make any more changes,” Sternberg told WyoFile. “Any changes that I anticipated are already made. If somebody decides to leave that’s up to them. I have no intention of making any further personnel changes.”

See these documents for more:
Stephen Easton Letter of Resignation
Open Letter from Law Students to President Sternberg
Faculty Emails Regarding Recent Resignations
 

Open letter from law students to President Sternberg

President Sternberg’s response to law students

 
Note: This article was updated on November 5, 2013 to list the correct the number of deans. 
 
— 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 November 5, 2013

  • Prospective Student’s Father

    I’ve read a number of articles about what’s going on at UW in recent months. I’ve watched the video of the attempted “kangaroo court” that the x-dean of of the law school tried to orchestrate with his students.

    I’ve read into the x-Pres’ background, and I am in the process of reviewing the backgrounds of the UW Trustees.

    So far I see the following conclusions apply to this situation….

    1) People don’t like change, even when it might be necessary

    2) Academic environments are full of egos that must be placated into change

    3) UW was lucky to have attracted this guy, however…he lacked an appreciation for how important engagement would be with the status quo and that “conservative Wyoming” isn’t just a moniker….it’s a permeating way of life.

    4) It seems that half the Board of Trustees of this University don’t belong in those seats. Ultimately the Trustees are more to blame for the situation since the “state of UW”, nor any University, isn’t a six month, 12 month, or even 48 month circumstance. When you let things go on for so long then sure, meltdowns will occur when you hint of change.

    5) It’s a sad situation for UW, this could have been a healthy turn of events but instead it turned into a clash of egos with the Trustee’s not helping one bit by their pre-1960 management styles (the kind of style that usually hides ineptitude vs instilling confidence). They lucked out by getting this new guy…but didn’t have what it took to manage/rescue the situation in time.

  • stacia

    A real leader doesn’t have to work so hard to throw his ego around. A real leader shows that, in the 21st-century, the dominant thing the world needs is ability to work with others. He seems proud to be lacking in that.

  • D Camp

    What is happening here is simply the President taking his honeymoon period to drag the University, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century from the entrenched Ivory Tower mentality of the early 1960s to a point where the needs of undergraduate and (especially) graduate students are fully served. I applaud his efforts. I have experienced a great many colleges and universities in my life, and the entrenchment disease at UW is the worst I have ever seen. This will be a painful time, but will make this university much stronger and vibrant in the future.

  • Larry Antelope

    President Sternberg was the first U. W. President to come to the Wind River Indian Reservation and publicly announce that he would work to recruit more Shoshone and Arapaho students. Most recent Presidents didnt even know where the reservation was. Well see if the energy companies let him stay.

  • Kimberly Holloway

    There is nothing shocking about change-ups after a new leader comes in. The City of Casper lost many good dept. heads when Forslund left to join WYDOH.
    Take a moment and ask yourself if the new president might actually know what he’s doing. (Especially you experts like RH)

  • KC

    There are at least two additional deans at UW: Dean of Libraries and Dean of the Outreach School. The former has been here about a decade, and the latter is new as of this year.

  • Robert Hoskins

    Well, Wyoming’s oligarchy has spoken. Any university administrator with a modicum of independence must go. Very Maoist.

    Look at who’s gone, look at who’s still there, and draw your own conclusions.

    RH

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