Old Main, primary home to the University of Wyoming’s administrative offices (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

On Sept. 12, Gov. Mark Gordon delivered a letter to the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees. On its face, the missive was anodyne. It encouraged trustees to do a good job finding UW’s next president. There were the usual suggestions of securing a good candidate pool, ensuring diversity, and picking the best fit for Wyoming.

Yet the letter has an interesting subtext. It was released during one of the trustees’ face-to-face meetings, which occur alternate months, and right at the start of the search process. It was read to trustees by a member of the governor’s staff, suggesting it was as much a message to Wyoming residents as it was to the trustees. The letter was released after the first “listening session” on the UW campus in which employees were asked to suggest the qualities any new UW president should possess. Given the public nature of the governor’s message, it appears to represent a shot across the bows of the trustees, particularly its four executive members. It signals gubernatorial unease. There are phrases such as “I am concerned”, “I fear”, and “I worry” in the cleverly written letter. It manages to simultaneously express thanks to trustees for past service and hints that the governor is unsure about the board’s wisdom.  

Below is a translation of Gordon’s original in which I attempt to fill-in the implicit messages the governor left unwritten between the lines.

Dave, John, Kermit and Jeff refer to trustees Dave True, John McKinley, Kermit Brown and Jeff Marsh. Like Gordon, all four are white, Republican men. Collectively they constitute the executive committee of the board of trustees. As such, they set the agenda, and tenor, for the university’s governing body. 

*****

 

12 Sept. 2019

Dear Dave, John, Kermit and Jeff –

I write to you today to express my hopes and concerns about how the next UW president will be identified. 

Yesterday I heard about the first of several listening sessions about the selection process, and the desired attributes of a new president. I was struck by two things.

Dave True, Chairman University of Wyoming Board of Trustees

First, the paucity of an audience. The expansive Yellowstone ballroom was virtually empty. UW has almost 2,800 employees, yet I doubt more than 30 attended the session. Why? 

Second, I detected a common theme raised by the few who did attend and speak: concern that the University of Wyoming is adrift as a result of its last three presidencies. The head of the School of Energy Resources expressed it most eloquently. Dr. Mark Northam has been at UW for 12 years. In that time he seen six presidents. He, the university’s head of information technology and the head of the UW Foundation are the sole remaining vice-presidents from when he came on board UW in 2007. I understand there has also been high turnover among deans — the rank immediately below vice presidents — and of university directors.  

UW is in trouble. I am uneasy at such high turnover, particularly among the academic and administrative leadership, and in what it signals about our only state university.

Trustee Jeff Marsh, portrait

I know this will be old hat for you but, for the record, here is a short history of UW’s recent administration. In 2013, the board decided not to renew the contract of Tom Buchanan and he stood down as president. This was followed by the hiring and, five months later, firing by the board of Bob Sternberg. Sternberg’s hiring followed an unusual and opaque process that prevented candidates from coming to campus and failed to disclose finalists’ names until just before a choice was made. In his five-month tenure Sternberg dismissed a succession of respected upper administrators. 

There was no acknowledgement of error by the board regarding its hiring of Sternberg, or the process it used to select him. 

Sternburg was succeeded by Dick McGinity, an experienced businessman but one unfamiliar with running an organization as complex as a public university. After three years of what looked like institutional stasis, McGinity was replaced by Laurie Nichols, the first female president in UW’s 130-year history. 

In your wisdom you decided to fire Nichols from the presidency in March this year. The reasons for not renewing her contract were never explained publicly. A 2018 survey of UW faculty found that only 28% believed what they were told by the university’s senior leadership — a group that includes the board of trustees.

John McKinley, Treasurer University of Wyoming Board of Trustees

I supported your decision not to renew Nichols’ contract as president. If you remember, I came to your May 2019 meeting to make a presentation. I did this as a show of public support for the board. You then chose Neil Theobald as interim president to get through the coming year.

My unease comes from several factors. The board, and thereby UW as an institution, has sustained a succession of black eyes since the end of Buchanan’s presidency. Hiring Sternberg was a misstep — your misstep. The non-renewal of Nichols’ contract came as an unwelcome shock to the public —  she was popular around the state, and her termination as president was never signaled in advance. The lack of transparency surrounding that decision, and lack of explanation after the fact, have only exacerbated that PR debacle. People in Wyoming no longer have a clear idea where UW is going, despite their considerable investment of tax dollars. I trust that I need not remind you that defining and communicating UW’s current strategic plan is one of your major duties as a board. 

Kermit Brown, Secretary University of Wyoming Board of Trustees

I am concerned you may default to the easy or obvious choice of Nichols successor, such as the current acting president. While he has experience as a university president, the search process will still cost $600,000, including a $350,000 fee to a private search firm. That’s a lot of money to waste if all you are doing is going through the motions for the sake of appearances.

You are experienced men. You know that all politics are local. Next year is an election year. I want to be sure that, with a new university president likely to be in place by July 2020, we do not see a repeat of the Sternberg affair, or of anything resembling it. I have enough on my hands governing a state with its major industry in serious decline

I am relying on you to avoid the sorts of missteps that the board made in the recent past. Your performance reflects on me, my administration and  the competence of the Republican Party to run this state efficiently, prudently and fairly. Should you prove unreliable, I may need to demonstrate to the public that there is daylight between the executive committee of the board and my administration. Governors appoint trustees. They can also dismiss them.

Your colleague, and your boss –

 

Gov. Mark Gordon

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Donal O'Toole

Dr. O’Toole is a professor and veterinary pathologist in the Department of Veterinary Science and a shard of "human capital" at the University of Wyoming. He served as chairman of faculty senate for...

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  1. I am often very confused by the comment made that President Nichols was a popular president at UW because I know of almost no one at UW, who liked her. In fact this fake letter (reinterpreted) talks about there only being 30 people at a meeting about getting a new president. The last two town meetings I attended that were set up by President Nichols, well, there were only a few dozen people also at those meetings so that part of this fake letter is a moot point…but my bigger point is that if she were popular, wouldn’t more people have attended her town meetings? And wouldn’t there have been a loud cry to keep her? The only person i have heard cry about her being let go has been by Mr. Donal O…and when he sent those complaints to the faculty and staff list serves, only one or two people at the most responded to him.

    1. Mr. Zook conflates two separate issues. He states that Dr. Nichols was not particularly popular at the University of Wyoming. This is correct.

      However, Dr. O’Toole is not “crying” about Dr. Nichols being fired (or, euphemistically, asked to resign). He is expressing (and has expressed) concern over the secrecy over which the firing occurred. Such lack of transparency has become par for the course at UW, and it’s why institutional trust in our trustees has eroded.

      Most faculty and staff at UW share Dr. O’Toole’s concerns. We have mixed feelings about Dr. Nichols, but uniformly dislike the way in which the situation was handled. Both things an be true at the same time.

      To answer Mr. Zook’s other questions (why wasn’t attendance at town halls greater, and why wasn’t there greater outcry to keep Dr. Nichols?): faculty and staff at UW are inured to the fact that the board of trustees micromanages university affairs. Given their backgrounds in business and law, it is not surprising that the trustees try to run UW like a business or a law firm. In short, experience has taught faculty and staff that attendance at town halls and the multitude of proverbial “listening sessions” is a waste of time conducted for the sake of optics. We wish it weren’t this way, but this is the reality.

      Governor Gordon’s letter to the trustees is a good start. One hopes that he takes this a step further, breaks from other former governors in recent memory, and appoints future trustees who simultaneously have less antipathy toward higher learning and have the capacity for self-reflection.

  2. Well done Donal!

    Identification of a political party should be unnecessary. In the Legislative Budget session of 2016 WS 21-17-201 was modified to change the political makeup of the UW Trustees. Prior to those changes to Trustee makeup not more than 7 of the 12 Trustee appointments could be of same party- an equitable statement for the Equality State.

    Following those legislative changes, not more than 9 of 12 Trustees can be from same party!! The rational provided was “that it was too hard to find qualified candidates from the minority party”.

    Of all state appointments, it is most important that Trustees of University and Community Colleges remain balanced as originally intended. A reasonable approach for the Equality State.

    From my experience, many of UW’s problems have a genesis in the Legislature.

    Pete Jorgensen
    Ex-Trustee. 14 years
    Ex-Legislator. 8 years

  3. Interesting. Perhaps accurate, perhaps too much “reading between the lines.” Perhaps as the writer says, “one man’s opinion.”

  4. A superb letter from the governor, appropriately tart. The past, shoddy record of hiring and firing presidents will make it very difficult to attract outstanding candidates for the presidency of the University of Wyoming. The Board of Trustees has made it clear that it will not be seeking a strong academic leader, but a pawn.

  5. Instead of holding resignations for the foreseeable future, how holding them about a minute and a half? The trustees are mostly picked by the former “education” governor who brought the State of Wyoming SF-104 and the never ending turnover of UW presidents. In fact, most in the know, have already figured that former Governor Mead is the reason Nichols was fired to open a space for Mead to have a really high paying government position known as UW president. Yes, it is a setup.

    Governor Gordon is right to identify the train wreck that is UW. You can see this from space. Open Google Earth and focus on the University of Wyoming. What do you see surrounding the university? Fast food joints, hotels.

    Focus now on CSU. You see Hewlett Packard, Intel, Woodward Governor, and a ton of businesses in the business park South of Colorado State University. All of those businesses supported by the growth of productive land grant university research and teaching. These businesses surrounding CSU seek to employ the students who graduate. Professors start businesses born of their academic collaborations. The community surrounding CSU grows and is prosperous around a strong land grant university. The comparison to CSU is simply close in location, pick any land grant university you want and view it from space… you will see th same thing. They are all surrounded by businesses and communities that prosper from Land grant University activites. As they should. The land grant university is an awesome creation in American education.

    UW, not so much. While other institutions compete for students and professors doing awesome teaching and research, while creating businesses of their own, UW competes for state dollars. Registered lobbyists for UW, paid with taxpayer monies, wander the halls of the legislature to beg for money for the highest subsidized land grant institution in America. The Business Park for UW is Cirrus Sky (https://www.cirrusskywyoming.tech). The boast on their website…”Right now, the Cirrus Sky Technology Park has one tenant: the multi-national company Underwriters Laboratories (UL).” ONE TENANT! Millions of dollars and a decade of work and we got one tenant.

    There is a ton to be done at the University of Wyoming if it is to be fixed. The culture is sick. Instead of focusing on excellence, UW paid a Boulder Colorado Firm a half million dollars for a used logo. Oklahoma State University has agreed to allow UW to use the logo. The state has spent $billions on new buildings at UW. Enrollment has stayed about the same before and after the build out. One could argue that enrollment would have actually dropped, if not for the Hathaway “scholarship”. By the way, How is that working? What is the performance of Hathaway recipients? do they graduate in high numbers? Is the graduation rate of Hathaway students high? Or do the talented students use Hathaway to get the foundation classes out of the way to then transfer to the better university to complete their degrees?

    UW simply does not reflect the population in Wyoming. It races to be a left leaning University competing with thousands of other universities doing the same thing.. We have a social justice program in the college of education. Liberty University, Hillsdale college and other more moderate universities have trouble choosing from the throngs of students trying to attend. UW will take anybody.

    Only focusing every decision on excellence will solve UW’s problems. Start with replacing the Trustees with folks who know excellence.

    1. You had me until the last two paragraphs. Becoming an arch conservative religious school based on the assumption that the state is crazily ideological will destroy the university…. and Google earth-ing around Liberty or Hillsdale isn’t going to reveal a hotbed of industry

      1. Hillsdale and Liberty are not land grant universities.

        You still must admit that the political stance of UW certainly does not match the state of Wyoming. I agree that it does not have to match the general population of Wyoming, but competing with the tens of thousands that lean away from Wyoming does not encourage parents to send their students to UW.

        I might even suggest that politics would not matter at all if UW sought excellence. Or even perform like other land grant institutions in the western United States

  6. The lack of women in this quartet of University Trustees is appalling. Consider: Wyoming prides itself as the Equality state, we are well into the 21st century when women are now working across all areas of our economy and governments and the majority of college students are now women. There are many well-qualified women who love the University and whose career and life experience could add value as Trustees. Research demonstrates that Boards make better decisions when women are included as Board members. The Governor should take this into consideration when making these important appointments.

      1. To be clear, the leadership or executive committee of the Trustees, Chair, Vice-Chair, Treasurer and Secretary are all men of a similar background. Given the lack of transparency by the Trustees with the public, one wonders if there is a similar internal lack of transparency. In other words, where does the power reside in the Trustees? With this group of 4 men or the entire Board which includes women?Your comment is right, but I’m still questioning. Bottom line, more diversity in age, gender, viewpoint, and life experience would likely improve the Board.

  7. Governor Gordon would be wise to request letters of resignation from all BOT members to keep in his drawer for the foreseeable future.