by Lawrence J. Wolfe
The University of Wyoming Board of Trustees is hurtling down a path to hire the next UW president. They hope to have candidates identified by December and a new president hired by February. Of course the university just went through this process in 2013, conducting an elaborate national search that resulted in the hiring of Robert Sternberg. He lasted five months and left the university in disarray.
The new national search is being conducted in an open and transparent process, in contrast to the search that brought us Sternberg. The board has conducted meetings around the state and on campus seeking to identify the qualities that the citizens and university faculty and employees desire in a new president. Those meetings have resulted in a job description that is being published nationwide and is available on the university’s web site.
Apparently the near unanimous conclusion of the board’s outreach is that the university needs a president who will bring a powerful vision to the job. As Trustee Mike Massie told the UW Branding Iron, after describing the comments from the nearly 200 people that attended the public meetings “[T]hey believe the next president should have a vision that would place the university among the top land-grant universities.” This has been embodied in the profile of the ideal candidate. UW is seeking “outstanding candidates who possess a compelling vision of the highest achievement for a land-grant university and who have the abilities to administer, motivate and inspire to achieve it.”
But what does it mean to have a “compelling vision,” and whose job is it set the vision of the university and see that the prophecy is carried out? Dr. Sternberg had a compelling vision that he would describe in every encounter. He believed the purpose of the university is to create “ethical leaders.” It was an intriguing phrase, but on further inquiry it was clear he had no idea how to turn his vision into reality. And in hindsight no one at the university tested Sternberg’s ideas until he was on the campus and no one said “wait a minute” — this is not anything the university wants or needs as a central vision. So the recent past does not bode well for asking prospective presidents to arrive on campus with a “compelling vision.”
Now to the central question — shouldn’t the job of developing the vision for the university fall to the trustees, the deans and faculty, the students and the other leaders of the institution, such as the governor and the legislature?
The trustees are chosen for 6-year terms and can serve for two terms, a total of 12 years. Some of the current trustees are on their third president and will serve with a fourth before they retire. The existing leaders know all the strengths and weaknesses of the university. They know, or they should know, what academic programs are robust, which are in trouble, what buildings need to be built, which construction projects can be delayed, how much tuition should be charged, and how selective the institution should be when admitting freshmen. And these are just a fraction of the questions that have to be asked in order to assess the overall reputation of any university. What prospective president, coming in from the outside, will have insights about the university that are comparable to those of the institutional leaders?
So let’s analyze for a moment the stature of the University of Wyoming. The published profile assumes that UW is not “among the top land-grant universities.” How do they know that? What yard sticks are being used to line up against UW and say “we do not measure up to other institutions?” What land-grant institutions have reputations that we should covet?
What if we assume that UW is already a top tier land-grant university? What facts and opinions support this conclusion? There are many, some of which are even identified in the job announcement. Let’s just make a quick list:
- UW’s tuition is among the lowest in the country.
- UW students have significant opportunities for scholarships through the Hathaway program.
- UW has undertaken a $1 billion construction program that rivals any campus in the country.
- Laramie was just ranked in one survey as the best small university town.
- UW has outstanding faculty who enjoy international reputations in certain disciplines.
- UW is pursuing development of top tier engineering and science programs.
- UW enjoys a very high level of financial support from the Wyoming Legislature.
- UW strongly supports collegiate athletics.
There are of course many other facts and opinions that could be added to the list. All that is required, in the absence of any external measuring sticks, is to think of nice things to say about the institution. That should not be a hard task for anyone with a reasonable knowledge about UW.
Now, let’s examine the facts and opinions that tend to disprove the assumption. It is not hard to find faults with any institution, but I am not inclined to develop a long list. Let the university’s critics do that.
- UW is not selective enough, it admits too many unqualified freshman.
- UW should have more national merit scholars.
- UW faculty salaries are not competitive with other land-grant universities.
- UW has old student dormitories.
- The football team is a disappointment.
- There are too many weak academic programs.
- The graduation rate is too low.
- UW is a laggard in certain national surveys.
- Faculty morale is low and will likely fall given the outlook for state funding.
Which assumptions about the stature of the university should a prospective president believe? A candidate looking at the university from the outside may choose to believe parts of each view, but constructing a compelling vision will require the candidate to guess at what the university really needs. It should be the responsibility of the current leaders of the university to say “we are here, and we want to go there.” Defining the “here” requires an honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of UW. Defining the “there” requires leaders to identify the institutions that UW would most like to be compared with (CSU, Utah, Oklahoma, Montana, Kansas?) and then chart a multi-year path to reach the goals.
Universities are collaborative- and consensus-driven intuitions which are not very responsive to top-down leadership. Selecting a new president on the basis of the promise that they are going to arrive and seek to implement their own compelling vision runs the high risk of getting a president who is far from what the university really needs.
It may be enough that the new president arrives with more humble and modest notions, to simply work with all the constituents of the university and together define what the university is and can become. UW does not need someone with all the answers. It needs someone who can help develop the answers and has the experience and integrity to help run UW to accomplish as many of the objectives as are possible over the course of many years.
The university has significant management challenges, particularly in the next few years as the state’s budget is likely to be constrained. These problems have little to do with vision; they are simply a reflection of the fact that the university is a large and complex institution. The new president will need to be a strong manager, someone who can take responsibility for working with everyone to solve the problems. Similarly, the new president will need to tackle the issues of academic planning and strategy — tasks that will require the sound leadership of the faculty, deans, staff, students and Trustees.
Perhaps UW should simply focus on doing well the things that the citizens expect of a great university, such as: educating students, helping make them career ready and life-long learners and graduating them on time; having world-class teachers and research programs to train the next generation of scholars; and having a winning football team.
As we have seen, presidents of UW come and go, some may leave lasting imprints, and others just gum up the works. UW should be realistic in its expectations about a new president, and the university should find within itself the strengths of its own convictions and desires, not the borrowed vision of an imported savior.
— Lawrence J. Wolfe has lived in Cheyenne for 41 years, where he is a practicing lawyer. He served on the UW Foundation Board of Directors from 2010-2014 and is currently teaching environmental law as a UW Adjunct Faculty member.
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