Saturday, November 16, 2013

“Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.”

Before he became University of Wyoming president, Robert Sternberg wrote a book, the first paragraph of which reads, “The title of his book, ‘Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid,’ assumes smart people at least sometimes do stupid things.”

Sternberg’s book asserted “stupid” is simply “the opposite of smart” suggesting people can be “smart” in some parts of their life, while being “stupid” in other parts. He couldn’t have known as his book was published it would later be used to explain the UW board of trustees’ decision to appoint him president.

The book takes some of the sting from its application to the trustees’ decision saying the paradox is resolved by simply denying that smart people act stupidly if the issue is converted from “why smart people are sometimes stupid” to “why smart people are sometimes foolish.”

That distinction explains the decision legislators and the governor made to allow the trustees to conduct a secret hiring process for UW president. Smart people just acted foolishly.

And there are times when decisions that initially appear correct prove to be foolish. That explains the decision to hire Dr. Sternberg. In hindsight, the decision appears foolish. Had the trustees prolonged the agony, that would have been stupid.

Too often decision-makers have a hard time reversing themselves. Kudos go to the trustees for stepping up and taking responsibility for their mistake. This crisis was growing more and more harmful by the hour and the trustees did what they had to do in the best interests of UW and the state.

Smart people sometimes act foolishly but the smartest eventually get it right.
This wasn’t, as some suggested, a case of UW staff resisting necessary change. Change is inevitable whenever new leadership arrives at the helm of any large institution. An effective leader must have the skills to manage the change without destroying the morale of the institution. 

Complaints about Sternberg went beyond his inability to manage change. It’s understandable that a new leader would recruit his own team but when Sternberg denies firing those he asked to leave, he was dishonest. Dishonesty is intolerable and took the matter beyond whether or not their discharge was necessary.

Regardless, change never justifies creating a hostile work environment.  The trustees took those charges seriously as indeed they should have. Cindy Hill may face impeachment in significant part for allegations she created a hostile work environment.

Other concerns include enormous unbudgeted expenditures that some allege total more than 4 million dollars. Sternberg approved some expenditures. Others were necessitated by his discharge of high-ranking UW officials.

Testament to Dr. Sternberg’s astounding lack of basic social skills was an unfortunate incident during the Homecoming Dinner, which left even his supporters shaking their heads. Dr. Sternberg inexplicably insulted one of Wyoming’s most respected personalities.
Rita Meyer served as state auditor and came 700 votes short of becoming governor. She’s a combat veteran of Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. Last month she received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University.

During the awards dinner Sternberg offhandedly described Rita as “twerking.” We were all introduced to that term when Miley Cyrus infamously demonstrated the dance, which was previously known only to those who hang out in strip clubs.  According to, it is “the act of shaking ones ‘buns’ in an up-and-down, side-to-side motion.”

Sternberg apologized without taking responsibility, claiming he didn’t know what the word meant. But Dr. Sternberg took it like a man. He blamed his speechwriter.

Rita graciously accepted his “apology” while expressing how “deeply embarrassed” she was by the untoward comment “not only for myself but, even more importantly, for the other award recipients, and for the families and friends in attendance at the ceremony.” She pleaded with Sternberg to “step up to the plate and be the president that we all thought the trustees had hired.” He was unable to do so.

Sternberg’s book is a reminder about, “Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.” This sad episode will make decision-makers smarter.

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