Duane Nellis wore a gold bucking-horse-and-rider lapel pin as he was quizzed by faculty, staff, and students on what he could bring to the role of University of Wyoming president.
He painted a picture of UW as a school full of opportunities for growth that he described as “low-hanging fruit.” He touted a leadership style that favors “shared governance” and “constructive engagement” with everyone from students to janitors, secretaries, faculty, and campus leaders.
“I believe in the power of respecting everyone in the organization,” Nellis said. “I don’t have this ego trip that I need to be in control.” He said he’s made efforts to have “fireside chats” and casual wine-and-cheese receptions to talk about concerns with Texas Tech stakeholders.
A geographer and remote sensing expert, Nellis has served as president at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, since 2013. On Monday, Nellis answered questions before a crowd of about 100 people at the UW Conference Center.
Nellis said he wants UW’s top post because it is the only public university in the state. That’s a marked contrast from Texas, where there are seven separate university systems, each run by a chancellor who oversees several institutions.
“There is not a clear line of authority or responsibilities, and that creates a lot of confusion at Texas Tech,” he said. “The chancellor is always there, and it creates a dynamic that is a little more difficult.”
The open forum and public exchange of questions marked a stark contrast from the closed search that resulted in the hiring of UW president Robert Sternberg in 2013, according to history professor Renée Laegreid.
“It’s night and day from what it was with Sternberg, and this is how it should have been last time, because without faculty and student and staff input the trustees just did not have a good sense of what the university wanted,” Laegreid said. “This is not a dictatorship. Universities have unique dynamics. You can’t just bring someone in to be ‘the great decider’ and you have to accept it.”
Sternberg’s departure seemed fresh on the minds of faculty, who prodded Nellis on how he would handle academic freedom and the influence of outside interests such as the mineral industry and the state Legislature — both issues that have simmered since the tenure of Sternberg and before.
Nellis said he would seek balance in such matters. “It’s important to allow academic freedom, and also important that we work closely with industry when necessary and be open to the spectrum of opportunities,” he said. “We have to be careful that industry doesn’t dictate university policy. We do value industry partnerships.”
Responding to student questions about how he would support minority students and underserved populations, Nellis said he would work to reach out to minorities in the region. That includes the Wind River Indian Reservation, he said.
“We need to be respectful and committed to all students and to make sure they are supported,” Nellis said. “Where there are issues, we need to address it immediately.”
Nellis framed his seeking of a job at UW as a way to move back to the Mountain West. He graduated from high school in Libby, Montana, a former asbestos mining town that is now a Superfund site. Nellis said he has often taken vacations near Glacier National Park as his career progressed from department head and provost to president jobs and he moved from Kansas State University to West Virginia University, University of Idaho, and Texas Tech University.
“This is the place that I would like to be to finish my career,” Nellis said. “The wind also blows in Lubbock, which is something that I’m used to.”
The two remaining candidates for UW president are Jeremy Haefner, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Henrietta, N.Y.; and Laurie Nichols, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.
Click here for more details about their scheduled campus visits on Dec. 9 and Dec. 14.