Dr. Robert Sternberg, University of Wyoming President.
Dr. Robert Sternberg, former University of Wyoming President.

Tribes fear Sternberg’s resignation may slow University of Wyoming’s outreach to reservation

By Ron Feemster
— November 16, 2014

As leaders on the Wind River Indian Reservation reacted yesterday to the resignation of University of Wyoming President Robert Sternberg on Thursday, they worried that an era of closer relations with the University of Wyoming may have ended almost before it began.

“He was making efforts to create better relationships with the tribes,” said Marlin Spoonhunter, the president of Wind River Tribal College. “He wanted to get more of our students into the University of Wyoming.”

Marlin Spoonhunter, president of Wind River Tribal College. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
Marlin Spoonhunter, president of Wind River Tribal College. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Sternberg aimed to recruit more Indian students from Central Wyoming College as well as the Tribal College and high schools on and near the Wind River Indian Reservation. He planned to make the university a friendlier place for students from the reservation. Reached at home as he cared for his two-year-old triplets, Sternberg said that continuing his initiatives would be up to Dick McGinity, the interim president, and the new UW president when he or she is eventually hired.

“I really enjoyed my visit to the reservation,” Sternberg said. “They’re such terrific people. I hope the university continues to reach out to them.”

The outgoing president, who served less than five months at the university, visited the tribes in Fort Washakie last month. He offered a commitment to include them in the educational policies for the state. In addition to educating tribal youth, Sternberg said he wanted to educate the state about people who were too often ignored or taken for granted.

“He thought diversity was important,” Spoonhunter said. “He thought the whole state of Wyoming needed to be educated in what diversity is.”

Sternberg studied tribal youth in Alaska as part of his research on the psychology of learning. He focused in part on alternative ways to measure the intelligence of people whose cognitive skills might not be captured by traditional tests.

“These kids have tremendous skills and intelligence,” he said of Native students. “It’s just not captured by the SAT and ACT tests. You have to assess them in a way that makes sense to them and teach them in a way that connects with their background.”

At the meeting in Fort Washakie last month, Eastern Shoshone Business Council member Wes Martel was impressed with Sternberg’s own bad experiences with intelligence tests as a child. Sternberg makes no secret of the fact that he scored poorly on IQ tests in grade school.

Wes Martel
Wes Martel (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“They put him in what we call special ed nowadays,” Martel said. “When somebody works their way out of that and gets to be president of a university, that tells you something about a man. Tests show that our Indian students are not performing up to their standards. He was willing to use our standards, experience and values to try and tailor education to our community’s needs.”

Martel said he wonders at how short Sternberg’s tenure as president was, especially after what he called the long “hush-hush” search process that led to his hiring.

“We need some explanations,” Martel said. “You put all that effort into explanation and want to keep it secret. Then you get your man and you turn on him. It makes me wonder whose game are you playing? And why? I’m kind of disappointed in that board right now.”

Interim president Dick McGinity, a UW faculty member in business who became provost under Sternberg and now steps into his office, did not have time for an interview about the reservation’s role in the university’s plans. But in a short email, he said he was open to working with the tribes.

“The acting president is a resident of Crowheart,” said McGinity. Crowheart is a town of 175 people on the reservation.  “And the relationship with the tribes is on. Whatever arrangements President Sternberg’s office made with the tribes will be continued.”

Martel notes that the process was just beginning: “We had one day of discussion with Sternberg. But I thought we were on the way to making some changes.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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  1. Unfortunately, this story failed to discuss the outstanding American Indian Studies program at the University of Wyoming that is led by Dr. Judith Antell. Further, the day Sternberg was doing this brief visit and making promises, a major event was happening on the UW campus in Laramie which involved American Indian high school students from throughout the state. A follow-up story is very much warranted so that the readers of WYO File have accurate information about the outreach and campus programming for American Indian students from Wyoming and elsewhere. Susan McKay, Professor Emeritus, UW