CASPER — In a surprisingly sharp letter to the University of Wyoming’s board of trustees Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon called on the board to undertake a “thorough and transparent” presidential search that resists the temptation to “insert a familiar face into the top position.”
“I need not remind you of the criticisms that have followed the departures of President (Bob) Sternberg and more recently President (Laurie) Nichols,” Gordon wrote in the letter, which was posted to social media and emailed to media. “Struggles among trustees, the administration, faculty, and other interested parties over how, who, how much, where, what, and to what end our university exists are to be expected. However, today, I submit these disputes have reached a volume that can only degrade the confidence students, faculty, and the people of Wyoming have in their lone public university.”
The two-page letter — which was read aloud by a representative for Gordon at the board’s meeting Thursday — comes nearly six months after the university announced that Nichols would not continue as president after June 30, when her initial three-year contract expired. The board faced steep criticism in the wake of that announcement, both for getting rid of Nichols and for not providing any insight into why.
But Gordon, when asked for comment about the situation by the Star-Tribune several months ago, said only that he wanted a transparent and thorough search. He otherwise stayed out of the fray.
That aversion seemed to end Thursday. In his letter, Gordon wrote that he hopes the search will find “a durable and auspicious presidency” but that he is “concerned that at this juncture in UW’s history, the university’s essential mission is not well articulated nor well appreciated.” He said the “black eyes” the university suffered because of the Sternberg and Nichols departures had prompted many around the state to wonder if UW was “adrift.”
Michael Pearlman, the governor’s spokesman, said Gordon had been “deliberative” in his thinking after the Nichols decision in the spring and that he decided to address the board now because the search was officially beginning. Pearlman said the letter wasn’t meant to put anyone on notice or act as a warning but instead set Gordon’s expectations.
Still, Gordon’s letter makes reference to the turnover at the university — interim President Neil Theobald is the fifth person to occupy the president’s office in the past six years. Why, then, didn’t Gordon express concerns six months ago, when faculty and others close to UW were castigating the board and demanding answers about Nichols? Pearlman himself noted that Gordon had made transparency a priority, and the university’s handling of the Nichols decision led to several news organizations, including the Star-Tribune, suing UW over public records.
“The governor wanted to be cautious on his approach to second-guessing the decision-making they made,” Pearlman said. “He did some fact gathering, had some internal conversations over how the dismissal was handled and so forth. Rather than focus on the past, I think he’s seeing an opportunity to step in as we’re moving forward.”
Dave True, the board president, said he didn’t take Gordon’s letter as a criticism of the board’s handling of the university or of the search process. He said Gordon was calling for an open search, which is what the board has established. He said he would disagree with anyone who considered the university to be adrift or who said that UW’s mission wasn’t well-articulated.
“I appreciated his taking the time and making the effort to share his thoughts on the search process,” True said. “I think overall it’s very consistent with what the board has set up as far as a very open and transparent process.”
The governor was most pointed in calling on the board not to usher through an easy pick for president. In his letter, he referred to a supposed Einstein quote — that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result — and advised the board to avoid the temptation of hiring a “familiar face” as the next president.
“I cannot stress the importance of a thorough and transparent process enough especially at this juncture in our history,” he added. “I worry that should this search default to a perceived ‘obvious’ or expected choice, your process will be viewed as unsound. If so, a new administration will be hamstrung before it even gets off the ground.”
He further warned against any hiring that could be perceived as “engineered.”
“He was trying to express his feelings that this search is critical for the future of the university and that this solid and robust process that he wanted is to ensure that we’re not just falling back on the de facto — that we have an interim president (promoted to permanent president) without considering other good candidates,” Pearlman said of Gordon’s meaning behind the “familiar faces” and “engineered” comments.
Indeed, one of the most familiar faces at UW is the interim president, Neil Theobald. His is the only likely candidacy for the permanent presidency whose identity is well-known. Theobald, who told the Star-Tribune last month that he would likely apply to be president, was the school’s CFO for a year before becoming interim president in the spring.
Pearlman said that Gordon wasn’t specifically talking about Theobald in his letter. The governor, he said, was speaking generally about seriously vetting all candidates and not just waving one person through.
“It wasn’t a criticism of acting President Theobald,” he added, “but merely that he represented a concern that it wouldn’t be a thorough process.”
True flatly rejected the suggestion that any candidate — including Theobald — would be rubber-stamped or swept through because they were familiar.
“The process that is in place, it is far from a rubber-stamping process,” the board chair said. “So I don’t — that’s not going to happen. Any and all applicants will be evaluated based on the same set of criteria.”
If he does apply, and barring some sort of scandal, Theobald will likely be an odds-on favorite to make the trustees’ shortlist, several people close to the university say. That’s because he’s well-liked on campus, because of his past as an administrator (he was previously president at Temple University) and because he is indeed a familiar face to those on the search committee.