The Drake's Take

Let sunshine into the search for UW’s next president

Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

— November 19, 2013

It was one of those “uh-oh” moments, when somebody says something you know they really believe, but you hope they’ll change their mind because it’s a bad idea, and you’d like them to succeed.

Dave Bostrom, president of the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees, had just announced the resignation of Robert Sternberg after his brief – but not brief enough – tenure as UW’s president.

“We performed a search [for a new president] and did absolutely the best that we felt we could do,” Bostrom said of the trustees’ effort. “I don’t want to look at what has been done. I want to look at the future and where we’re going now.”

Whoa. Think about the message that sends to the entire state of Wyoming, since he’s talking about our only four-year university: Our choice may have been a disaster, but we did the best we could, so we’re not going to dwell on what we did wrong. Maybe we’ll get it right next time. Or not.

I hope the board decides to not just plunge head-first into its next presidential search without some meaningful reflection on the mistakes that were made with Sternberg’s appointment, why he didn’t work out as UW’s new leader, and how the trustees can avoid repeating what was one of the most painful periods in the university’s history.

The board is sitting in a very uncomfortable place. The man they hired for a base salary of $435,000 a year is gone after only four and a half months, and almost every corner of UW is up in arms over the damage that’s been done to the administration’s leadership, individual colleges and departments. People with strong ties to UW were calling for Sternberg’s head, and he defended the job he was doing by saying it was what the trustees ordered.

Bostrom agreed. “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,” he said.

So the trustees openly admit owning what Sternberg did, even though it was so incredibly unpopular that they had a nine-hour board meeting without him last Thursday, then announced that the president quit. They could have added: “And by the way he’ll be paid $325,000 for the next year for doing nothing, while someone else we eventually hire tries to put the university back together. Wish us luck.”

Three deans and five other administrators, including Provost Myron Allen, resigned during Sternberg’s time in Laramie. The changes were tumultuous, and created a climate of fear for faculty and uncertainty for students. Every new university president is expected to make some personnel changes, to assemble his own team to put in place his agenda. Yet Sternberg’s moves were undeniably clumsy, and created a huge credibility gap.

Sternberg asked Allen for his resignation, then publicly said he accepted it “with regret.” Allen was let go at least partially because Sternberg said the provost was an Ivy Leaguer who didn’t fit in with the new administration’s laser-like focus on becoming the top land-grant institution in the country. Which might have sounded OK, if not for the 30 years Sternberg spent teaching at Yale.

Sternberg told the faculty that the dean of the College of Education resigned on her own; they knew she hadn’t. Second story: he didn’t have anything to do with asking the dean to resign, because the request was made at the provost level. Also not true, the faculty said. Third story: the College of Education has a bad reputation around the state. That one was so far off base, he must have just been trying to tick people off.

Then there was the noisy departure of the dean of the College of Law, who objected when Sternberg announced he would have a task force look into allegations by unnamed people he talked to around the state who weren’t satisfied with the law school’s efforts related to the energy industry.

Sternberg signed a $35,000 contract with a consultant to develop a winning formula for the football and men’s basketball teams on the state’s dime. It upset many in the large, vocal and influential contingent that lives for UW sports. It didn’t help that the report was mostly drivel about how UW needs to develop a winning attitude and recruit better players. If only the Athletic Department had figured out this amazing strategy earlier, who knows how many championships the Cowboys would have won!

Whoever the board selected as president would have been controversial, simply because of the trustees’ insistence that the hiring process be totally confidential. The board wanted to withhold the identities of the finalists, and just announce its pick.

Three news organizations – the Associated Press, Cheyenne Newspapers Inc. and the Casper Star-Tribune – sued to force the university to publicly release the names of the finalists. This was a no-brainer, because of the public’s vested interest in what happens at the state’s only university, which spends millions of dollars of public funds to operate. How could UW not let people know who was in the running for one of the most high-profile jobs in the state?

A judge agreed, and the board grudgingly released the list of finalists shortly before hiring Sternberg. Had there been a longer public process, it’s certainly possible the board might have discovered some weaknesses in Sternberg’s management style that ultimately led him to make this classic understatement on his way out the door: “I have come to realize that as wonderful as the University of Wyoming is, it may not be the best fit for me as president.”

The Legislature approved a new law that allows UW and the community colleges to keep presidential searches secret, but it is not mandatory. It is fundamentally not in the best interests of the public, because the process should be as transparent as possible to increase the probability that the best candidate will be picked. The trustees might not take their advice, but the entire university community should be able to see the finalists and hear their respective visions for running UW.

Sternberg had his supporters, but they were largely people outside of the university who welcomed getting rid of administrators they felt had grown too comfortable in their positions. In short, they didn’t have to live with the havoc he was creating on campus, nor any future poor decisions he might have made.

I find it fascinating that some of the news organizations that fought to make UW name the finalists stayed unswerving supporters of Sternberg until the bitter end. They seemed extremely impressed with his resume, and didn’t look beyond it to see what was actually happening in Laramie.

The day before he resigned, the Star-Tribune Editorial Board opined, “The next time Sternberg comes to a student meeting, it’s our hope that they hear what he is saying and that he is able to bring them into his vision.”

“We think it is prudent to calm down and give some of the changes a chance to play out,” wrote the Laramie Daily Boomerang, which is owned by Cheyenne Newspapers Inc.

On the day Sternberg resigned, the Riverton Ranger compared him to a “new sheriff in town,” and basically said people should just get out of his way.

“Chances are good that this shrewd dissector of human behavior will find a way to ride out this early storm,” the Ranger editorial predicted. “In the long run, his ‘we’re No. 1′ vision for our state’s only university is bound to be a lot more interesting — and important — than first-semester friction among people who are just getting to know each other.”

By that time, of course, people at the University of Wyoming had gotten to know Sternberg all too well.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on November 19, 2013

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