University of Wyoming Trustees voted unanimously Thursday to pursue an open search for the next UW president, and bring finalists to campus before Feb. 29, 2016. In this photo, trustees chair Dave Palmerlee of Buffalo, at left, sits next to UW President Robert Sternberg who plans to step down from the job in June 2016. Trustees (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

The University of Wyoming Board of Trustees unanimously voted Thursday to hold an open search for the next university president.

Trustees voted to name finalists and bring them to campus — in part to avoid a lawsuit from news media, trustee John MacPherson of Saratoga said.

Trustee John MacPherson, at lower right, said trustees voted for open search because of public input and the potential for a lawsuit if finalists were kept confidential. In the background, Dave Palmerlee talks with trustee Mike Massie of Laramie who wrote the motion to pursue the open search. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

“The consensus is, and certainly [it is] in the press, that we ought to have an open process,” he said. “And the reality is that if we close the process, we will get sued, and given the current president’s announced departure date, we don’t have time to litigate it.”

The Casper Star-Tribune, the Associated Press, and the parent company of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle sued the university in 2013 over it’s confidential search process for selecting a president. Trustees eventually decided to open the search, which led sitting presidents who were finalists to withdraw before their names could be made public.

Following the vote Thursday, MacPherson acknowledged that holding an open search to find the next president could make high level candidates reluctant to apply for the job, since many sitting presidents would prefer their home institutions not know they are on the market.

However, trustees judged the loss of such candidates to be worth it in return for the benefits of an open search.

The decision to hold an open search reflected the input from faculty, students, and members of the public that a sub-committee of trustees collected in recent weeks, MacPherson said. While some trustees opposed the open search initially, no trustee opposed the the motion during Thursday’s vote.

Trustees also decided to bring finalists to campus before February 29, 2016.

A separate successful motion extended the existence of the presidential search planning committee and added trustee Dave Bostrom, (Worland) to the group. Current members of the committee include MacPherson, Michelle Sullivan (Sheridan), Mel Baldwin (Evanston), Jeff Marsh (Torrington), and Mike Massie (Laramie).

During the next month the subcommittee will draft a report with suggestions on how to implement a search process. It will present the report to trustees at a meeting on June 15, at a location to be determined.

Trustees are still collecting input on how to design the search process, including how to structure search committees and whether to use a search consultant. Members of the public can email their input to UW.Presidential.Search@uwyo.edu or offer their comments online at www.uwyo.edu/presidentsearch.

New trustees Dick Scarlett (Wilson) and Michelle Sullivan (Sheridan), both appointed by Gov. Mead in March, voted for open search along with the rest of the board. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

In a recent meeting to gather input from faculty, trustee Jeff Marsh (Torrington) alluded to the widespread view that the last presidential search that hired Robert Sternberg was a failure. Sternberg resigned after just five months when trustees lost confidence in him amid a flurry of controversy and national media coverage.

“We missed the mark last time,” Marsh said. “We did. It happened. It is there. We will try to make it right.”

MacPherson said the outcome of the last formal presidential search was, “an unfortunate situation for everybody concerned. It didn’t work out, and it was not a good situation for anybody.”

The gathering of public input and the deliberations over the search process are meant to bring a better result this time, he said.

“One thing is clear from our meetings with the public: We all have the same goal, and that is to select the best possible person to serve as the next president of the University of Wyoming,” MacPherson said. “It’s the most important decision we make as trustees.”

Best practices

Challenges in presidential searches are not uncommon, according to experts on presidential search. WyoFile recently reviewed several best practices that may help avoid past mistakes in choosing a university leader.

A brief overview on presidential succession comes from consultant Theodore Marchese, writing in Trusteeship magazine.

Rather than viewing the search as a standalone process, Marchese frames a presidential search as part of a longer transition. It begins with the exit of the sitting president, continues through the selection of a new leader, and concludes in the years after the new president is hired.

The crucial transition period often lasts 12-to-18 months. “Some institutions have presidential transitions down pat; others struggle mightily,” Marchese wrote. The hazards of presidential succession include “lost momentum, frayed relationships, key departures, and financial disappointment.”

Among Marchese’s key points are:

  • The continued growth of any university depends greatly on how well trustees conduct presidential searches.
  • Departing presidents must have an exit strategy. Presidents can avoid a “lame duck” period by keeping up the pace and publishing an agenda for the final months in office.
  • Detailed contracts for compensation and severance help trustees avoid contentious negotiations later.
  • Trustees may want to appoint a transition committee to plan events honoring the departing president and welcoming the new president.
  • New presidents should spend the first few months building relationships and learning about existing successes and challenges before instituting drastic changes.

That last statement mirrors what former UW president Philip Dubois told a North Carolina newspaper when he left UW in July 2005 to become chancellor of UNC-Charlotte.

“I have never been in an institution where a person’s sole vision ever got them anywhere,” Dubois told a reporter for Greater Charlotte Biz. “My plan is to learn as much as I can to determine where all entities are invested, both emotionally and resource-wise, to make sure we make the best decisions for the university as a whole.”

Trustee Dave True (Casper), at left, speaks with newly appointed trustee John McKinley (Cheyenne). No trustee spoke against open search before the vote, despite the fact that revealing finalists may make sitting presidents and other high level candidates reluctant to apply. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

In an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “Lessons from Wyoming” Susan Resneck Pierce used several incidents from the tenure of former UW President Robert Sternberg to illustrate pitfalls new leaders should avoid.

The “lessons” included tips on providing ways for current academic leaders to step down gracefully if needed. New presidents may need to act independently of non-campus advisors that may not know how to best manage the university, Pierce wrote.

The University of Wyoming has its own internal white paper written by former provost Myron Allen and former vice president for special projects Carol Frost in 2012. The paper explains the limited supply of presidential candidates, the opportunity for developing internal candidates, and the importance of planning and designing the search process.

“[At] most universities the exit of a president is essentially an unplanned event,” Allen and Frost wrote. “Planning for a transition when one isn’t imminent makes it easier to develop procedures that earn the trust of constituencies….”

One national authority on university presidential searches is the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. The group brings together information for trustees in how to better manage their institutions.

One AGB article explains the leadership roles in a presidential search. It details the responsibilities of the trustees’ chair, the search committee chair, the search committee itself, and the search consultant.

The article also lists common pitfalls in searches:

  • Inexperience with presidential searches;
  • Inadequate planning and process;
  • Excessive haste;
  • Lack of clarity on institutional needs and required leader attributes;
  • Poorly defined or misunderstood roles of the board and search committee;
  • Insensitivity to constituents’ needs and desires;
  • Insensitivity to candidates’ needs and desires;
  • Disagreement among committee members;
  • Outside interference;
  • Loss of confidentiality;
  • Incomplete or inadequate disclosure about institutional problems; and
  • Failure to perform due diligence.

For the most comprehensive guide to presidential search, consult AGB’s 176-page in-depth book on presidential search from 2013, which is available for purchase online. That information is also available summary form in a 27-page overview document for purchase.

Additional resources:
Podcast on presidential search
Video on the presidential search process

Gregory Nickerson

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 www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *