New University of Wyoming president Robert Sternberg aims to invest in people

Dr. Robert Sternberg University of Wyoming President
Incoming president Dr. Robert Sternberg on a recent visit to the University of Wyoming. (Courtesy University of Wyoming)
By Gregory Nickerson
— May 7, 2013

At a meeting of the University of Wyoming trustees last week, incoming university president Robert Sternberg announced a set of fundraising priorities that didn’t put capital construction at the top of the list.

Instead, Sternberg aims to raise money for students, professors, and business incubators, with the ultimate goal of developing ethical leaders that can lead a life of service.

Sternberg’s fundraising goals indicate that the university will continue its efforts to invest in students and teachers so the institution can better serve the state.

For the past decade, the university has made major investments in its physical plant, upgrading virtually every part of the campus. Those upgrades have been a major focus of fundraising efforts, and a priority for the state legislature. In total, the university has invested over $564 million in new and planned construction since 2005.

At the same time, a freeze in salaries since 2010 led President Tom Buchanan to call for the legislature to increase faculty pay, even at a time of statewide budget cuts.

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers committed $65 million toward a $110 million transformation of the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. The “Tier-1” engineering school project will involve large-scale construction, but the legislature also plans to provide the salaries needed to attract 25-30 new professors. (For more information read this plan released May 5.)

Meanwhile, the university made a supplemental budget request asking lawmakers for $5 million in pay raises across all departments. In the end the legislature granted $1.8 million in one-time bonus pay.

As an aside, the legislature also made changes to the Public Records Law that would allow the university to maintain a confidential search process. The decision came after a lawsuit filed by several media organizations asking for a release of candidates names, which had been withheld on the advice of the search firm Greenwood/Asher and Associates. Following a last-minute public announcement of the names of four finalists, Robert Sternberg was named on February 24th as the successor to president Tom Buchanan.

Sternberg’s arrival may signal a new chapter for the university in which the investment in people won’t be so dependent on the legislature. In the meeting with university trustees on May 1, he laid out his five top fundraising priorities, all centered on academics. His priorities (paraphrased) include:

  1. Activities that promote ethical leadership and develop leaders who can make the world a better place.
  2. Developing incubators that connect to the top economic sectors in the state, including agriculture, energy, natural resources, and technology.
  3. Financial aid for attracting and retaining students.
  4. Graduate fellowships and assistantships to draw top students who can boost the research output of the university.
  5. Endowed chairs and faculty salaries.

Sternberg noted the impact of investing in academics: “If you donate for a scholarship, you change the world forever. The world is a different place for your having been in it,” he said.

Sternberg noted the university already has a great deal of capital construction underway. While it’s vital to have good facilities, he cautioned against pursuing so many capital construction projects that they reduce fundraising resources for other areas. As a caveat, Sternberg said remodeling the dorms could become a priority because of its importance in recruiting student athletes.

Regarding the University of Wyoming Foundation, Sternberg said he’d like to see it get even bigger and stronger than it already is. Currently the university has an endowment of about $350 million.

Sternberg’s desire for foundation growth will likely be modeled after his experience at Oklahoma State University, where he currently serves as provost. Oklahoma State has a $452 million endowment, but recently exceeded the $1 billion goal of its “Branding Success” fundraising campaign.

T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire oil magnate and hedge fund investor, donated $100 million to the effort, on top of his previous $500 million in gifts to athletics and endowed chairs.

The funding goals of the OSU campaign bear some resemblance to Sternberg’s priorities for Wyoming: $500 million for student scholarships, $200 million for professor salaries, $200 million for capital construction, and $100 million for programs and services that benefit the state.

Sternberg has a major affinity for land-grant schools like Oklahoma and Wyoming because they have a mission of service.

Created under the Morril Act of 1862, land-grant schools received title to federal lands that could be sold to fund education in agriculture and engineering. The land-grant schools aimed to promote an educated populace with the skills to develop the states and territories.

That emphasis on practical education is still reflected in the University of Wyoming’s mission statement:

“As Wyoming’s only university, we are committed to outreach and service that extend our human talent and technological capacity to serve the people in our communities, our state, the nation, and the world.”

That mission of service is part of what attracted Sternberg away from his past positions as professor at Yale and dean at Tufts, and eventually to provost at Oklahoma State and president at the University of Wyoming.

“I like to be in a university that doesn’t think it has arrived,” Sternberg said. “It’s much more exciting to be in a place that feels like it can always do better.”

Through the course of his career, Sternberg grew to dislike academic elitism. He believes a university’s quality can’t be judged simply by college rankings. Instead, Sternberg thinks it should be reckoned by the wisdom and ethics of its graduates, and whether they develop the leadership and desire to serve and give back to their community.

As he moved further from the Ivy League, Sternberg grew to prefer schools that provide broad access to students. Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship program has produced a dynamic Sternberg likes: education widely available to as many students as possible regardless of economics.

Sternberg said he “loves” the opportunity for the university to nourish not just academic pursuits but also applied research. “It’s inherent in the DNA of a land grant school to work in partnership with the people of the state,” he said.

That attitude, combined with Sternberg’s professional credentials, his interest in ethics, a passion for the outdoors, and an understanding of Wyoming likely helped him secure the position.

Previously Sternberg was a member of the psychology faculty at Yale University from 1975-2005, where his research focused on teaching and learning. He also studied, creativity, wisdom, love and hate, intelligence, and relationships.

Sternberg is a noted critic of tests that assess students in an unfair manner, an interest stemming from his own challenges with test anxiety. After testing poorly on an IQ test and getting a C in an intro class at Yale, he majored in psychology and graduated summa cum laude.

Since earning his PhD at Stanford, he has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates, and served as the president of the American Psychological Association.

From 2005-2010, Sternberg was dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University near Boston. In 2010 he was the sole finalist for the provost position at University of Colorado-Boulder, but elected to take a position at Oklahoma State, which he preferred because of its land-grant mission.

As provost at Oklahoma State University, Sternberg worked as the school’s chief academic officer. His duties included scholar development, assessment, and oversight of the colleges, honors program and library.

Sternberg also gained experience in bridging the gap between scholarship and economic development, having served on a board at OSU that boosted start-ups based on a faculty research.

There are some parallels between Sternberg’s previous job at Oklahoma and his new job in Laramie. Both universities are land grant institutions located in historically oil-producing states where the school mascot is the cowboy. Further, both schools have about 1,800 faculty and staff, though OSU’s Stillwater campus body numbers about 24,000 compared to Wyoming’s 14,000.

When it comes to organizing thoughts and insights into digestible form, Sternberg is a big fan of lists. He’s written numerous articles with lists on topics ranging from how to transition from being a professor to an administrator, to how to make ethical decisions, and most recently how to succeed in a job search.

In his meeting with the University of Wyoming trustees, Sternberg presented a list of 15 values that he will promote and develop at the university:

  1. academic excellence
  2. academic integrity and ethics
  3. diversity of academic viewpoints, politics, learning styles, geographic origins, and economics
  4. academic freedom
  5. service to the state, the nation, and the world
  6. promotion of active citizenship and leadership
  7. shared governance, collaboration, and transparency
  8. passion for the university and the state
  9. creativity
  10. critical thinking
  11. practical thinking and common sense
  12. wise thinking and promotion of the common good
  13. building the local community in Laramie
  14. globalism
  15. mutual respect and dignity

Sternberg says he and his wife Karin have long dreamed of moving to the Rocky Mountain West. His wife — also a psychology professor — comes from Weingarten, Germany, a town of 24,000 in the southern part of the country near the Swiss and Austrian Alps. They saw Wyoming as an ideal place to live, both for their hobby of hiking and for their children, a set of two-year-old triplets.

“As a place to live and bring up kids, it’s the best place. It’s a whole life. We like the values of this state,” Sternberg said. “The people are everything I hoped for.”

For a sampling of Sternberg’s writings published at Inside Higher Ed, click here.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at
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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on

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