I won’t say ‘I told you so’ but I’m clearing my throat very loudly right now!


Well, it appears that the ill-fated and secretive hiring process used to select Robert Sternberg as the President of the University of Wyoming was every bit as flawed as I and every other newspaperman in Wyoming said it would be. (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/11/dr.-sternberg-announces-resignation-university-accepts-with-understanding.html)
Sternberg resigned yesterday after a tumultuous 4 1/2 month reign, apparently for no other reason than his inability to connect with the people of Wyoming and the university, which resulted in his epic failure to sell the changes he was making at UW.
I’m sure the UW Board of Trustees— although they claimed in the press release announcing their acceptance of Sternberg’s resignation that they supported those changes— will quickly distance themselves from their doomed-from-the-start President and everything he did.
The UW Trustees will also claim that Sternberg was hired as the result of an “open” hiring process, but I want to make sure everybody remembers what “open” means in this instance, so I’ll give you a brief history of what transpired a year ago when the process took place and decisions were made. They made this decision based on advice from an out-of-state (Florida) search firm hired to find candidates for the position.
1. UW Trustees announced that they wouldn’t reveal the names of any candidates (even those chosen as finalists) and would simply announce the name of the person they selected after the choice was made.
2. The Wyoming Press Association and several newspapers (including the News Letter Journal) pleaded with the Trustees and wrote editorials insisting that UW at the very least reveal the names of the finalists and allow the people of Wyoming to provide input on those candidates, and perhaps even have an opportunity to interact with them and view their qualifications. It would have been nice to meet those candidates, subject them to well-publicized question and answer sessions with the public to see how they interact with the people of Wyoming, and allow this state’s newspapers to conduct their own investigations and interviews of those individuals.
3. The UW Trustees adamantly refused to any form of public disclosure or discourse during any part of the hiring process, (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2012/11/uw-search-process-strikes-proper-balance.html) which resulted in a lawsuit being filed by two of this state’s newspapers and the Associated Press to force the University to reveal the names of the finalists once they were selected.
4. A judge decided in favor of the newspapers, and UW quickly appealed that decision. (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/01/uw-board-president-responds-to-ruling.html) At the same time, the Trustees appealed to the Wyoming State Legislature to change the law that required them to reveal the names of the finalists (and make their decision retroactive) so the judge’s decision could be over-ruled. The Wyoming State Legislature moved quickly to do so, and the votes in both sides of the Capitol weren’t even close, with lawmakers passing a law that nullified a court decision and let the Trustees off the hook. Governor Mead refused to veto the bill, instead electing to let it become law ‘without his signature’— whatever that means.
5. Newspapers, including this one, continued to make noise of course. That’s what we do!
6. The UW Trustees got what they wanted, but the appeal of the lawsuit was still in front of a judge, and by all appearances the newspapers were going to win again. That would have put UW and the Legislature in a tricky spot, particularly with the controversy over Senate File 104 gaining voter’s attention and raising the ire of citizens across Wyoming.
7. Here’s how the final week of the hiring process played out AND WHAT THE TRUSTEES WILL BE CLAIMING MADE THIS AN “OPEN” HIRING PROCESS. I’ll let you be the judge of whether it was open and involved the public, or if the Trustees played fast and loose with the law. What follows can all be verified through the UW website in the archives of press releases the institution put out over a five day period (beginning on a Saturday) leading up to the announcement of Sternberg’s hiring.
February 22, 2013— UW Trustees announce four finalists for the UW President’s position in a brief press release. (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/02/uw-names-finalists-in-presidential-search.html)
February 23, 2013— UW issues another press release announcing that the Trustees are meeting in closed session to discuss the Presidential search. The meeting is not even held in Wyoming. It takes place at the Denver Airport Marriott at 8 a.m., Sunday, the day the press release is issued. (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/02/uw-board-of-trustees-to-meet-sunday.html)
February 26, 2013— Three days later UW announces the hiring of Sternberg in another press release.
It is clear that the Trustees made the decision in Denver on that Sunday morning, and it is an indisputable fact that the people of Wyoming played no role in it whatsoever. (http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2013/02/uw-names-24th-president-current-oklahoma-state-provost-robert-sternberg-will-assume-uw-post-july-1.html)
How surprising should it be that the unfortunate Sternberg— who was apparently hired by the Trustees to make significant changes at UW (as evidenced by their statement in the latest press release that they support the changes he did make in his short time at the school)— was unable to connect or relate to the people Wyoming before or during the process of making those significant changes. The people of Wyoming had no chance to meet him, sound off on him or prepare themselves for his personality, character and way of doing business before he was brought in and forced to implement serious change.
The whole damn thing was doomed to failure, and while the powers-that-be will insist that it was nobody’s fault (or may even have the audacity to claim that things went south because of their so-called ‘open’ hiring process) it should be clear to anybody with half a brain that this mess is the result of an insistence on government secrecy on the part of UW— a state agency that spends billions of taxpayer dollars— and protection of the right to that secrecy by the Wyoming State Legislature.
There was a clear indication on the part of both entities that they considered the hiring of the UW President something that was above the public’s pay grade, and something that we had no business being a part of. In other words, it was a glaring example of the “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help” danger that Ronald Reagan is so famously credited for coining.
I am not asking for repercussions against the UW Trustees or the Legislature. As a general rule, that’s not my style. I think both groups made a big mistake in the way they handled the last hiring, and all I’m asking is that they admit the mistake (they’re human and certainly entitled to make some) and not repeat it.
To do so:
1. The legislature must repeal the law it passed a year ago that granted UW the right to hire a leader in this manner.
2. The UW Trustees must reveal the names of semi-finalists publicly, and do so early enough in the process to allow the media to provide information on those individuals to the public so the people of Wyoming can become familiar with the candidates who are being considered.
3. The finalists must be named well in advance of the selection being made, and the intervening time should be used to set up public appearances in at least three different Wyoming communities by those candidates.
4. (This will be the toughest one to swallow) The UW Trustees and the members of the Wyoming Board of Education should no longer be appointed by the Governor. Those positions should be elected by the people of Wyoming in light of the fact that they are significantly responsible for choosing who will lead the University of Wyoming and Wyoming’s K-12 schools. Both of those individuals (UW President and Director of the Wyoming Department of Education) are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and entrusted with budgets that amount to billions of dollars of taxpayer money being spent each biennium. As such the people of Wyoming should be able to hold somebody in the system accountable in some way. Since the leader of UW and the leader of the Dept. of Education are not elected, the people responsible for selecting them should be! Having appointed people simply appointing other people provides too many degrees of separation between voters and this state’s leaders, and the flaws of that type of governance are making themselves readily apparent over and over again in Wyoming.


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