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November 19, 2013 8:31 am

EDITORIAL: UW learns high price of secrecy

Written by Ilene Olson

Just four months after he came on board as University of Wyoming president, Robert Sternberg resigned Thursday, saying UW wasn’t a good fit for him.

 

Sternberg’s short presidency was marked with conflict, ranging from his controversial $35,000 contract with a firm to determine why the UW football and men’s basketball teams are not competitive, to the resignations of the university’s provost, four deans and three associate provosts. Some were asked to resign.

Since his arrival, Sternberg’s leadership has been challenged by members of the UW faculty and administration, who generally appeared to disagree with his vision for the university or felt he was making sweeping changes too rapidly.

Those differences are not terribly surprising, given that the UW board hired Sternberg through a secret process that left out the public and gave the University of Wyoming community no chance to meet him, hear about his vision for the university or comment on his candidacy before he was hired.

That secrecy was so important to the UW board that, rather than comply with a court order to reveal the names of the finalists for the UW president’s position, board members ran to the Wyoming Legislature for help. The Legislature, in one of its less-than-brilliant moments, blindly complied with the board’s wishes, and we now have a law on the books stating that all presidential searches at UW and the state’s community colleges can be conducted in secret if that is their boards’ wish.

Simultaneously, while all this was going on at the university, the Northwest College Board of Trustees showed how that process can and should be done in public. The names of applicants for the Northwest College president’s position were witheld until finalists were chosen, then trustees released the names of the three finalists. The board then arranged two days on campus for each candidate.

Each candidate was the guest at a public reception, and each made presentations on campus. After those presentations, faculty, staff and students at the college were asked to provide their impressions and feedback.

The board also interviewed each candidate in executive session. In addition to its own conclusions, the board weighed the campus feedback in its decision to hire Stefani Hicswa, former president of Miles Community College.

To date, President Hicswa’s leadership at the college has been accepted well, and her vision for the college is moving forward. In general, her vision appears to match or dovetail with the goals of the faculty and administration at the college.

Looking at these two situations, one has to ask — was the secrecy at UW worth it?

We emphatically would say no; it came with a high price.

That price includes more than $500,000 paid to Sternberg — more than $200,000 for six months’ salary and a payout of $325,000 for Sternberg’s resignation that was announced after a nine-hour, closed-door meeting.

The UW board also faces the cost of hiring his replacement and of replacing or rehiring the deans and other administrators who fled or were let go during Sternberg’s leadership. Sternberg’s departure likely means UW will go through the remainder of the school year without a permanent leader at its helm.

Richard “Dick” McGinity, who was serving as vice president of academic affairs, was named interim president.

It’s time now for the Wyoming Legislature to learn from the situation and to repeal the law allowing UW and college presidential searches to be conducted in secrecy. It didn’t take long for history to prove that hiring the leader of a public university in secret is a bad policy. It shouldn’t happen again.

2 comments

  • Comment Link November 19, 2013 8:09 pm posted by Paul Heimer

    Your editorial is spot on. If that process had occurred at UW the Sternberg disaster would have never happened. Even if the legislature does not repeal the law let's hope the trustees have enough common sense not to repeat their mistake of making the process an entirely secret one.

  • Comment Link November 21, 2013 7:12 pm posted by Jim

    Dr Sternberg claims, in essence, he was doing the bidding of the Board of Trustees, and further claims they knew exactly what he was doing in making changes at the Dean's level for various departments, law, education, etc.
    So, when the blow back came, the board of Trustees gave Dr Sternberg his walking papers, and real fast. As your piece accurately points how, the cost was high, over $ 500,000 for a short 4 month stint. Still America and Wyoming is kept in the dark on what was told Dr Sternberg that so jacked him up on the law school, and the odd TASk Force ruses that transpired. Wyoming is kept in the dark on that , as well. Your paper's oped, makes excellent points. Thanks for calling for full transparency. So far, that is a sham at the UW Trustee level, and people must wonder if the board of trustees is clueless on the meaning of trust, and the duties that come with being a Trustee. Keep up the good work on calling for sunshine on al matters.

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