Last year we learned that Wyoming legislators could be pretty darned effective in getting rid of artwork they didn’t like at the University of Wyoming. This year we’ll see whether they are as effective in cleaning up the mess they helped create at the University when they insisted on secrecy in the hiring of UW’s new president.
Despite admonitions that an open, public hiring process would produce the best result, Wyoming legislators rushed through a bill allowing the University to shroud the hiring. A day after District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell ruled that a secret hiring process violated state law, lawmakers introduced legislation changing that law.
Donnell listened to the University trustees explain why they thought the process should be hidden from the public and found their reasoning less than compelling. The judge rightly noted that Wyoming people aren’t comfortable learning the outcome of an important decision after it’s made.
Even the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities recommended that boards hold public “meet-and-greet” sessions with presidential candidates. Wyoming community college officials told the legislature they found public decision-making on who should lead their schools to be of enormous value. But UW and the legislature thought they knew better. They believed they couldn’t find a quality candidate if names were made public prior to the final decision.
So they closed the doors, pulled down the shades, turned out the lights and selected Dr. Robert Sternberg to be the University’s president. When the trustees finally informed the citizens of Wyoming of their choice, the president of the board of trustees, David Bostrom said, “Collectively, we’ve agreed that this is the most important decision we will make during our tenure on the Board of Trustees, and every action we have taken has been made to ensure a successful outcome to this process.”
It turns out that the most important decision these trustees have made in their tenure may not have ensured a successful outcome. By all accounts from the campus, Sternberg is leaving scorched earth in his wake.
Numerous longtime, effective leaders at the University have been forced out. The latest casualty is the popular College of Law dean, Steve Easton. His resignation letter read, “As a result of changes at the University of Wyoming, I can no longer be effective in representing the interests of the College of Law as your dean. As a result, I have submitted my resignation as dean.”
People considered by many to be trustworthy are questioning not only Sternberg’s approach, but more importantly, his honesty. Retired professor Charlie Ksir had been recruited to come out of retirement to become dean of the College of Education after Sternberg forced the resignation of the previous dean. He gave consideration to the offer but soon declined telling Sternberg he had begun “to question whether I would be able to trust you to behave in an honorable and respectful way toward the College.”
Wyoming made a choice to have but one university. As a result people throughout the state have an abiding interest in its success. They are quickly learning that something is amiss at their university.
Now legislators and UW trustees have a dilemma. They were adamant about keeping the hiring process secret. They argued that any sunlight would make it impossible to find the right person. They first tried to ignore the law and when the court said they couldn’t, they went to extraordinary lengths, and without due diligence, to enact a new law enabling the secrecy.
All of that appears to have blown up in their face. It’s not a case of hindsight being 20/20. They were told that a public process involving stakeholders was the best chance to ensure a good outcome. But they ignored that advice, opting for surreptitiousness.
Now the trustees and state legislators must decide whether and how quickly to eat crow. Perhaps this time they will listen better, ignore that new law the trustees lobbied for and legislators hastily enacted, and conduct an open, public process.