On Sept. 12, Gov. Mark Gordon delivered a letter to the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees. On its face, the missive was anodyne. It encouraged trustees to do a good job finding UW’s next president. There were the usual suggestions of securing a good candidate pool, ensuring diversity, and picking the best fit for Wyoming.
Yet the letter has an interesting subtext. It was released during one of the trustees’ face-to-face meetings, which occur alternate months, and right at the start of the search process. It was read to trustees by a member of the governor’s staff, suggesting it was as much a message to Wyoming residents as it was to the trustees. The letter was released after the first “listening session” on the UW campus in which employees were asked to suggest the qualities any new UW president should possess. Given the public nature of the governor’s message, it appears to represent a shot across the bows of the trustees, particularly its four executive members. It signals gubernatorial unease. There are phrases such as “I am concerned”, “I fear”, and “I worry” in the cleverly written letter. It manages to simultaneously express thanks to trustees for past service and hints that the governor is unsure about the board’s wisdom.
Below is a translation of Gordon’s original in which I attempt to fill-in the implicit messages the governor left unwritten between the lines.
Dave, John, Kermit and Jeff refer to trustees Dave True, John McKinley, Kermit Brown and Jeff Marsh. Like Gordon, all four are white, Republican men. Collectively they constitute the executive committee of the board of trustees. As such, they set the agenda, and tenor, for the university’s governing body.
12 Sept. 2019
Dear Dave, John, Kermit and Jeff –
I write to you today to express my hopes and concerns about how the next UW president will be identified.
Yesterday I heard about the first of several listening sessions about the selection process, and the desired attributes of a new president. I was struck by two things.
First, the paucity of an audience. The expansive Yellowstone ballroom was virtually empty. UW has almost 2,800 employees, yet I doubt more than 30 attended the session. Why?
Second, I detected a common theme raised by the few who did attend and speak: concern that the University of Wyoming is adrift as a result of its last three presidencies. The head of the School of Energy Resources expressed it most eloquently. Dr. Mark Northam has been at UW for 12 years. In that time he seen six presidents. He, the university’s head of information technology and the head of the UW Foundation are the sole remaining vice-presidents from when he came on board UW in 2007. I understand there has also been high turnover among deans — the rank immediately below vice presidents — and of university directors.
UW is in trouble. I am uneasy at such high turnover, particularly among the academic and administrative leadership, and in what it signals about our only state university.
I know this will be old hat for you but, for the record, here is a short history of UW’s recent administration. In 2013, the board decided not to renew the contract of Tom Buchanan and he stood down as president. This was followed by the hiring and, five months later, firing by the board of Bob Sternberg. Sternberg’s hiring followed an unusual and opaque process that prevented candidates from coming to campus and failed to disclose finalists’ names until just before a choice was made. In his five-month tenure Sternberg dismissed a succession of respected upper administrators.
There was no acknowledgement of error by the board regarding its hiring of Sternberg, or the process it used to select him.
Sternburg was succeeded by Dick McGinity, an experienced businessman but one unfamiliar with running an organization as complex as a public university. After three years of what looked like institutional stasis, McGinity was replaced by Laurie Nichols, the first female president in UW’s 130-year history.
In your wisdom you decided to fire Nichols from the presidency in March this year. The reasons for not renewing her contract were never explained publicly. A 2018 survey of UW faculty found that only 28% believed what they were told by the university’s senior leadership — a group that includes the board of trustees.
I supported your decision not to renew Nichols’ contract as president. If you remember, I came to your May 2019 meeting to make a presentation. I did this as a show of public support for the board. You then chose Neil Theobald as interim president to get through the coming year.
My unease comes from several factors. The board, and thereby UW as an institution, has sustained a succession of black eyes since the end of Buchanan’s presidency. Hiring Sternberg was a misstep — your misstep. The non-renewal of Nichols’ contract came as an unwelcome shock to the public — she was popular around the state, and her termination as president was never signaled in advance. The lack of transparency surrounding that decision, and lack of explanation after the fact, have only exacerbated that PR debacle. People in Wyoming no longer have a clear idea where UW is going, despite their considerable investment of tax dollars. I trust that I need not remind you that defining and communicating UW’s current strategic plan is one of your major duties as a board.
I am concerned you may default to the easy or obvious choice of Nichols successor, such as the current acting president. While he has experience as a university president, the search process will still cost $600,000, including a $350,000 fee to a private search firm. That’s a lot of money to waste if all you are doing is going through the motions for the sake of appearances.
You are experienced men. You know that all politics are local. Next year is an election year. I want to be sure that, with a new university president likely to be in place by July 2020, we do not see a repeat of the Sternberg affair, or of anything resembling it. I have enough on my hands governing a state with its major industry in serious decline.
I am relying on you to avoid the sorts of missteps that the board made in the recent past. Your performance reflects on me, my administration and the competence of the Republican Party to run this state efficiently, prudently and fairly. Should you prove unreliable, I may need to demonstrate to the public that there is daylight between the executive committee of the board and my administration. Governors appoint trustees. They can also dismiss them.
Your colleague, and your boss –
Gov. Mark Gordon