Why did UW Board rush to put a new president in office?
— January 21, 2014
The sudden departure of Bob Sternberg, president of the University of Wyoming for less than five months when he resigned last November, was a perfect opportunity for the Board of Trustees to find his replacement in a transparent manner.
It wasn’t exactly a mulligan, because this do-over came with damage from Sternberg’s hiring that the board needed to acknowledge and try not to repeat. The logical action for the board to take should have been to embark on a careful, open process to choose a new president.
Instead, the board ignored calls from both faculty and staff to include them in the selection process, and it raced to give Interim President Dick McGinity a contract to fully serve as the head of the university until June 30, 2016.
Why the rush? The trustees seem to have an agenda they’re not sharing with the rest of us.
UW’s administration was reeling from the effects of Sternberg’s overhaul of the university’s top leadership, which left chaos in his wake that couldn’t be mitigated overnight no matter how qualified his successor is. The board had plenty of time to conduct a thorough national search for a permanent president, while having the chance to see how McGinity handled the job if he chose to apply.
But the board apparently didn’t learn anything from its mistakes in choosing Sternberg without giving the UW community an opportunity to express its views about the candidates, whom the board tried hard to keep secret.
Sternberg’s brief tenure at the helm of UW was a disaster. The board mishandled his hiring from the beginning, only agreeing to release the finalists’ names after media organizations sued. Shortly after the list was made public, the board hired Sternberg with no other input from the rest of UW.
Sternberg asked the provost to resign and made McGinity his interim replacement. Three associate provosts resigned, and the Education dean was asked to step down. The president’s decision to have an external review of the College of Law caused its dean to resign, sparking a very public debate about all of the changes. The president said his action was prompted by complaints he heard while traveling in Wyoming that the law college wasn’t looking out for the interests of the minerals industry.
Sternberg said he was only following the board’s orders to shake up the administration, but by that time there was so much dissension within the faculty and staff ranks that he had little support left among the trustees, and his path out the door was set.
After a total of four hours in executive sessions on Thursday, the Board of Trustees voted 9-3 to make McGinity the president for the next two and a half years. Trustee Chairman Dave Bostrom argued that a national presidential search would take up to a year, and during that time UW needed the kind of steady leadership McGinity could provide. Bostrom and other trustees also expressed concern that given the negative attention Sternberg’s resignation had saddled UW with, a strong presidential candidate wouldn’t emerge if a search was immediately conducted.
I don’t buy any portion of that argument. Only the board knows why it was so determined to install McGinity in the president’s office, but concern on campus that the process was unnecessarily rushed is justified. There was no need to panic; McGinity had accepted the temporary position and would likely have continued in that role for as long as the board wanted.
Yes, there was the issue of McGinity being fairly compensated for his new duties and responsibilities, which are considerable. Other than the governor and the UW Cowboys football coach, UW’s president is probably the highest profile job in the entire state.
But McGinity had been at UW for a relatively short time, both as a faculty member and administrator. He has impressive credentials, including serving as a director of the Wyoming Business Council. However, the true value of his leadership has not been determined, nor will it be for some time. Why not give him a reasonable salary increase, plus the perks that come with the office – including a housing allowance – but keep the job officially open?
UW’s new president opened the door to criticism from the UW community and lawmakers when he testified before the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee in December. McGinity said previous administrations were “unresponsive” to the needs of the state – a comment that proved troublesome to many. Was he saying, as Sternberg did in the flap with the College of Law, that the university’s leadership didn’t do enough for special interests that contribute to UW?
McGinity told the Casper Star-Tribune he wasn’t saying past administrations had failed. “Perhaps I misspoke or overstated the point I was trying to make to the committee,” he explained.
I think he meant to convey exactly what he said. His testimony opened up the floodgates of criticism from legislators who claim UW has been slipping in its commitment to industries that fuel the state’s economy and are instrumental in funding the university. It turned into a debate about academic freedom vs. economic concerns, and there is no question some lawmakers are willing to throw out the former if it will help the latter.
For evidence, look no further than a footnote tacked onto UW’s budget bill last year that asked trustees to report to several joint interim committees on current practices for installing permanent artwork on campus, in response to the dispute over “Carbon Sink,” an art display attacked by the minerals industry because of its allegedly negative message about fossil fuels.
The Legislature also wants more information about how UW selects its deans, and asked trustees to consider a policy that would allow the Energy Resource Council to review and approve hiring new employees at the School of Energy Resources.
In case that’s not a direct enough message that UW must toe the line in meeting the energy industry’s needs, Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) spelled it out to Star-Tribune reporter Leah Todd. “So you had a university that was in large part funded though the mineral industry … and, it seemed to me, has … hindered and caused problems in the furtherance of the state in the use of those resources,” Perkins said.
UW had already been falling down the slippery slope of catering to special interests at the expense of academic freedom under former President Tom Buchanan, who in addition to the Carbon Sink fiasco allowed donors to dictate that a liberal Illinois education professor would not be allowed to speak on campus, until the courts overruled him.
There was every indication that Sternberg would continue this pattern with the law school and other colleges. JAC Co-Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) asked McGinity if he would continue Sternberg’s policies to create more degrees for “young people who want to make a living in the mineral industry, agriculture and tourism.” Bebout said he was assured that is the direction UW is headed.
If the board of trustees had indeed directed Sternberg’s most controversial actions, as he claimed, it would make sense to replace him with a president who would also follow orders. Is that why the trustees put McGinity in charge as quickly as possible?
McGinity assured Wyoming Public Radio at the end of the year that UW’s faculty may speak their mind and continue research without fear of reprisals.
“I think it is the responsibility of the president of the institution to defend the freedom of academics, of academic researchers, to pursue their logic where it leads,” he told WPR News Director Bob Beck.
McGinity maintained that academic freedom isn’t going to be sacrificed, even if it offends the industries and people responsible for filling UW’s coffers. The trustees put him in a position where he will, at some point, be faced with that conflict. I hope he means what he said.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.