Lessons From Wyoming

Susan Resneck Pierce looks at a very short-term presidency and asks if there are lessons about how a new campus leader can promote change and build support for a new agenda.

November 22, 2013

“Cleaning House,” by Inside Higher Ed's Ry Rivard, presents a case study of how Robert Sternberg, the University of Wyoming’s new president, a distinguished psychologist and experienced administrator, made a series of choices involving senior staff changes that led to a tumultuous and abbreviated tenure of fewer than five months.

My goal is not to add to the criticism of Sternberg. Rather, using this story as context, I’d like to try to answer a question that Rivard asked: Did this "administrative housecleaning… have to be this way?" I’d also like to offer some lessons that I’ve learned -- both from my own 11 years as president of the University of Puget Sound and the last seven years serving as a consultant to colleges and universities -- about how new presidents can effectively bring about change in their senior administration, or, as one trustee whom I advised about a personnel problem on his campus put it, “How can we land this plane without crashing it?”

Lesson # 1: Before making any major changes, personnel or otherwise, and before laying out and acting on an agenda, a new president needs to gain an understanding of the institution, its culture, its values and its people by doing at least the following:

  • Gain a first- rather than a second- or even thirdhand understanding of the key opportunities for and challenges facing the institution and then, only after extensive consultation informed by data, carefully prioritize the actions and initiatives that will best take advantage of those opportunities and address the challenges. This requires a great deal of active listening that intentionally includes conversations with people who will bring different and especially opposing perspectives to the table.  Presidents who limit their discussions to those who support their ideas will be unaware that there may be counter-narratives on their campuses worth hearing and even honoring.
  • Seek out those who enjoy the respect of their colleagues rather than paying attention only to those who immediately come courting. My late husband, Kenneth Pierce, used to say that anyone in a new leadership position should be “especially wary of those who swim out to meet the boat.” I advise new presidents to discover who among the current and retired faculty and staff are the most admired and then meet with them individually to learn what they think. (I have found discussions with retirees especially illuminating since they generally remain deeply committed to the institution but, because they are no longer employees, have the freedom to be absolutely candid.)
  • Presidents do not need to take a full academic year to gain such understandingin today’s climate nor should they do so. Pamela Trotman Reid, for example, told her new colleagues when she arrived at the College (now University) of St. Joseph, in Connecticut, nearly six years ago that although conventional wisdom had it that “new presidents shouldn’t have new ideas for nine months, I’m from New York and I listen really fast.” Reid has brought about a good deal of successful change at St. Joe’s.

Lesson # 2: Unless there is a compelling need for immediate change in the senior administration, new presidents should discuss their expectations with all who report to them and come to an agreement about how they will work together. Ironically, this is especially important if the president has concerns about a colleague. In such circumstances, the president should be explicit about the concerns and give their colleague the opportunity for them to work together successfully. Presidents should put their expectations in writing and set a specific period of time to determine whether this arrangement is working. If not, the senior administrator should agree to step down.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, told Inside Higher Ed that he once allowed a provost who was “a very nice older gentleman” to remain in his office, with his secretary and his title for a year while Trachtenberg shift his responsibilities elsewhere. As Trachtenberg put it, “It’s just the way adults treat each other.”

Because Trachtenberg’s approach might not be feasible at all institutions, let me describe two other cases (although disguised for the purpose of confidentiality) where a similarly private and gentle approach was also successful.

1. A new president I advised had reservations about the style and energy of the long-serving provost who had been appointed by his predecessor. The president also understood that the provost enjoyed the affection of the campus and board.

During the spring prior to taking office, the president spent time on campus, meeting with the vice presidents individually to learn about their work. He concluded that over time he wanted a new provost. In his first week as president, he met with the provost and asked for a favor. He told the provost that the provost had much to teach him and so asked the provost to stay in his current position for the coming year. He suggested a sabbatical for the subsequent year and then a return to a tenured faculty position. The provost agreed and sent a gracious announcement to the faculty. The president followed with his own memo to the campus that thanked the provost for his dedicated service.

The two worked cordially throughout the year, although it was clear that the provost had reservations, which he expressed privately to the president, about some presidential decisions. The president threw a wonderful thank-you party for the provost and raised an endowment to fund a scholarship in the provost’s name. As a faculty member, the provost was a loyal supporter of the president, although from time to time he confided in the president and the president only that he disagreed with some of his choices. The faculty, staff and trustees were pleased that their longtime provost and the new president had worked well together in a transition that they all understood was probably inevitable.

2. In the early days of my own presidency, I learned that a senior administrator who had been at the university for more than 20 years did not understand technology that was now central to the work of her division and that her staff was functioning with an “assembly-line approach” to its work, with every staff member having to touch every piece of paper once. When a staff member was otherwise engaged or out sick, the entire process stalled. I met with this key administrator and shared my concerns. I suggested that only she, her husband and I needed to know about the conversation, and I gave her two choices. I would provide her with the training and consulting that she needed to use technology and to reorganize the way her area functioned. Alternatively, if she preferred, she could resign, effective in three months. During those three months, her only responsibility would be to work with an outplacement counselor to help her with the next step in her career. I gave her a few days to let me know her choice. She immediately explained to me that she knew she couldn’t “learn new tricks” and so chose option two. She found a new position very quickly. Her husband later told me that his wife had never been as happy as she was in her new role, and that previously she had been worried all the time.

Lesson #3: Although Sternberg is absolutely right that presidents need to have the support and confidence of their boards and that presidents of public campuses should pay attention to legislators, presidents also should not assume that these non-campus constituencies have a full understanding of how their institution is or should be functioning.

As the University of Virginia board demonstrated in 2012, board members may not always fully understand the most effective ways for presidents to operate within a college or university culture.

Lesson # 4: Presidents need always to be conscious of the importance of as informing and engaging those on campus to the greatest extent possible.

Although I don’t know how Sternberg arrived at and presented his decision to review Wyoming’s law school, the law dean claimed that neither he nor the faculty had been informed about the review, much less its purpose. If that is the case, it is predictable that they, the staff and the students would become anxious and angry. It is, therefore, important for the president, prior to announcing a review or any major initiative affecting an area of the institution, to discuss the impetus behind the initiative with the dean of that area and solicit the dean’s thoughts about how best to shape the process. The president and the dean together in turn might then productively consult with the faculty to gain their understanding and their input. Although those consulted may well continue to be nervous about the initiative, they would have at least been informed and have had a chance to contribute their best thinking.

Lesson #5: New presidents need to establish their own credibility with the campus and especially the faculty in at least the following ways.

  • They need to assure the campus community that they are not unilaterally imposing their own vision but rather than they have shaped a vision based on a genuine understanding of institutional mission and that the course or courses of action that they are proposing will build on the institution’s strengths, acknowledge the best of its history and genuinely benefit its students and perhaps the larger community.
  • They need to inspire people that the vision is feasible and important. Sternberg’s asserted in an email to Inside Higher Ed that he had argued that if Wyoming “were tops in service to our state and in educating ethical leaders who would make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the world,” Wyoming would become the number-one land grant university in the country. However, he also wrote, “A surprising number of people said they didn’t believe me, and some outright called me a liar. I really did believe it though.” Although there may well have been more behind this aspiration to be the top land-grant institution than appears in this email, those at Wyoming might have been more amenable to Sternberg’s hopes had they understood the following: what it actually meant to be achieve that status; why doing so would be important to the university, its students and the state; what it was that those land-grant institutions achieved that Wyoming did not; and how such an aspiration was tied to institutional mission and the university’s strategic plan.
  • Presidents need to provide evidence for the actions that they propose. Presidents will lose rather than gain credibility if they appear to act either on hearsay or without a full analysis of the consequences of their choices. As a result, they need to be clear about the problem that they are trying to solve before they take action.  Bob Sternberg, for example, appeared to have based some of his actions on stories he had heard about the placement of education graduates and the interest on the part of some trustees and legislators in reviewing the emphasis of the law school rather than on data that suggested a problem that needed to be addressed. For example, was it really the case, as he says he had heard repeatedly, that Wyoming education candidates were being selected for jobs at lower rates than graduates of other education programs in the state? And if so, was the problem one of leadership in the school of education or some other issue? And were there genuine concerns that prompted the law school review? For example, was the law school suffering with its current emphasis? Was it having difficulty enrolling a sufficient number of capable students? Was the bar passage rate for law graduates appropriate? Were students finding employment? Were law firms and companies clamoring for graduates in areas that the law school did not offer or offer sufficiently?
  • Presidents need to demonstrate that they are able to provide the resources to make new initiatives a reality.  A president who early on raises funds for campus priorities will give the board and the campus confidence that new initiatives that require new resources are feasible.

Lesson #6: If after appropriate consultation, the president decides that a change needs to be made, she or he needs to think carefully about the actions to be taken and to play “mental chess” to the extent possible about the consequences. Here, I recommend the following:

  • The president first discuss the change and the reasons for it with the board leadership and be sure that the board leadership fully understands the issues and is supportive.
  • If the decision to let someone go is for cause, the president should also consult seek legal advice and work with the director of human resources to be sure that all appropriate policies are being honored and institutional and legal processes are being followed.
  • Immediately after informing a direct report that she or he is being let go, the president should meet with the direct reports of the person being fired to let them know about the decision and to talk about next steps. Although the president probably would be prohibited by the need for confidentiality about personnel decisions to provide details, the president would be able to ask the staff for their help in moving forward and, if true, to reassure them that their positions are secure or if future changes are being contemplated, tell them the purpose of those changes, the timetable and the processes. Bob Sternberg indicated that the three associate provosts who reported to Myron Allen did not discuss their resignations with him. What he had not done, however, was to initiate a conversation with them.
  • If at all possible, the president and the person who is being let go should collaborate on the content and the process for the announcement. It is not unusual in such situations for the person being let go to sign a release and agree to confidentiality in exchange perhaps for severance, a paid leave or even letters of recommendation. Such an agreement would have avoided the scenario at Wyoming in which the president announced in July that he had accepted the provost’s resignation with regret and the provost’s email to the faculty in early November that “On July 23, the president, to whom I reported directly in an at-will capacity, asked me to resign. When a president asks a provost to resign, the provost has little choice.”

Lesson # 7: Under no circumstances, should the president discuss publicly the details that led to a direct report leaving his or her position.

I am often struck by the assertions from a campus that it seeks change when in fact what most people are contemplating are changes that affect others but not themselves. But the truth is that the landscape of higher education today, particularly because of the daunting economic pressures facing many colleges and universities, is requiring change. Those presidents who successfully lead the transformation of their institution — and there are many who do so successfully — consult often, communicate well and inspire their colleagues, their students, their alumni and donors — that the course of action that they are proposing will contribute to the education of their students and the health and integrity of their institution, in all of its aspects.



Susan Resneck Pierce is the author of On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders and the forthcoming Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Colleges Thrive, both published by Jossey-Bass. She is also president of SRP CONSULTING, LLC.


Back to Top