Robert Sternberg became president of the University of Wyoming in July, started building a new leadership team and was gone long before he could finish.
Sternberg, a renowned psychologist, had a brisk tenure as president and came to at least one solid conclusion: “as wonderful as the University of Wyoming is, it may not be the best fit for me as president,” he said in a statement last week announcing his immediate departure after four months.
In what looks like a new president’s administrative house-cleaning gone awry, the question is, Did it have to be this way? Should senior administrators step aside gracefully when a new president arrives? How quickly should a new president act?
Sternberg came to Wyoming after three years as provost at Oklahoma State University. One of his first major decisions was to oust the longtime provost, Myron Allen. The new president thought Allen favored a management technique that put too much power in the hands of the central administration. Sternberg also said there were serious differences in their interpretations of the university's land-grant mission. But the ouster of the provost didn’t go so well.
“His crew of associate provosts almost immediately resigned in either protest or solidarity – I don’t know, they didn’t talk to me, that’s their prerogative,” Sternberg said in a telephone interview.
Nicole Susan Ballenger, one of the associate provosts who resigned, said the idea that Sternberg did too much too fast is "too simple" to explain what happened. She blamed a lack of respect for and interest in human capital.
"People here, like everywhere, want to be a part of their future," she said in an email. "When they know they are being left out, disregarded, and at the same time don't understand what the change is meant to be about, they become suspicious about motives, fear takes over, and trust is lost."
In any event, suddenly Sternberg was down a veteran provost and several associate provosts.
Sternberg also got word – through his new interim provost, Dick McGinity – to the dean of the College of Education that he wanted her to resign. She did. Sternberg said the dean had to go because he was hearing repeatedly that the university's graduates were not top choices for K-12 teaching positions.
But then the dean of the College of Law resigned in protest on Halloween over a new task force Sternberg set up to look at the future of legal education in Wyoming. The law dean, Stephen D. Easton, said he wasn’t in the loop.
A week later, Easton stood up during a campus forum and challenged Sternberg to have his actions judged in a trial-style proceeding.
“I thought it was kind of theatrical and not what you expect from a dean of university, but the audience seemed to be pretty much with him,” Sternberg said. Easton could not be reached for comment.
Things were not getting better.
After just 135 days on the job, Sternberg – who had gotten word his support on the board of trustees was no longer solid – told the board's president, David Bostrom, during a one-on-one meeting in Old Main last Wednesday, that he would resign.
The announcement dropped on Thursday, and both Sternberg and Bostrom said Sternberg was carrying out the board’s wishes during his time at Wyoming.
None of the administrators who lost or quit their jobs are going to get them back, for instance. Bostrom said new people are already in those spots. “We’re not going to un-fill those positions,” he said.
So what was the problem?
“It’s his manner,” said Peter Shive, a professor emeritus and Sternberg critic. “I think that most people here agree that we haven’t had significant change in quite some time. So, probably, there is need for some. We may disagree on what exactly may be the best changes, I’m sure – you could say that about anywhere. But his manner of provoking this change was absolutely unacceptable to so many of us.”
One person who cautioned against hiring an outside president was Allen, the ousted provost. In a 2012 document titled “Planning for Presidential Succession,” Allen, a university veteran, argued the board should “discuss how qualified internal candidates will be integrated in a search process, and how they will ensure that internal candidates will be accommodated fairly.” The postition most commonly held before a presidency? Provost. Allen and his co-author, associate provost Carol Frost, could not be reached for comment. Frost was among the associate provosts who left their administrative jobs after Allen was removed.
Once Sternberg came in, Allen’s exit happened quickly. Within four weeks of coming to campus, Sternberg told Allen to go back to being a faculty member. The official story – which Sternberg and a university spokesman both told faculty and the media – was that Allen’s resignation letter was received with “great regret” because Allen had decided to go back to teaching.
“That’s what’s usually done,” Sternberg said in an interview.
Indeed, the usual practice is for a president and departing official to coordinate their statements and have a cover story.
But the cover was blown when Allen made it known that he was forced out.
Shive said that cost Sternberg.
“He said that everybody resigned, but it quickly became apparent that that was a lie,” Shive said. “He explained the lie by saying, 'Well, I lied because I wanted to protect the reputation of these people.' So, that begs the question, If it’s O.K. to lie in this circumstance, what other circumstances would justify his lying to his faculty?”
Sternberg said was only following standard procedure to protect those asked to step down.
"My trying to preserve their dignity and administrative job possibilities, therefore, seriously backfired," he said in an email. "What I did not anticipate was the negative feelings that my effort to preserve their dignity would create, nor did I anticipate that many of the officials who stepped down actively would turn on me."
Of course, the dignity preservation effort often works.
For instance, George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was once a new president who wanted to get rid of a “very nice older gentleman who held the title” of provost.
Trachtenberg told the provost he could stay around another year, keep the title, keep the office, keep the secretary -- but with someone else doing the actual job of provost.
“It’s just the way adults treat each other,” Trachtenberg said.
John Burness, a former interim president at Franklin & Marshall College who now teaches on higher ed at Duke University, where he was a longtime vice president, said new presidents need to be deft about how they go about cleaning house.
“It doesn’t look like a lot of deftness was utilized here, let’s put it that way,” Burness said.
Bostrom, the board president, said he didn’t know if Sternberg made too many changes too soon. Instead, Bostrom said there are different management styles and each can work or fail. Some people might argue rapid change causes too much turmoil, but going slowly can cause long-term turmoil.
“If you talk to management gurus, you’re going to find there is not any right way to do it,” Bostrom, who was in the insurance business, said.
Sternberg also got blamed for a few other senior university officials who happened to leave around the time he arrived. “I’m afraid I got a lot more credit than I deserved for people leaving,” Sternberg said.
Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita at the University of Puget Sound and a higher ed leadership consultant (as well as a frequent contributor to Inside Higher Ed) said new presidents don't necessarily need to spend their first year on a listening tour, but they do need to consult carefully before letting go of an experienced administrator. New presidents also need to work on their own reputation.
"If it’s not a crisis situation or for cause, it would behoove any president to establish him/herself on the campus,” she said.
Shive said things got so bad on campus that trivial things would become part of the climate of fear. For instance, Shive said Sternberg asked everyone to wear the school colors, brown and gold, on Fridays.
Shive, a geologist by training, said he walked around campus and found the farther away from the administrative building he went, the fewer people were wearing brown and gold – except for a spike at the College of Education.
“They wore brown and gold on Fridays only because they were afraid not to,” he said of the people who wore the right colors.
Sternberg said an atmosphere did evolve on campus that was unhealthy. He started to hear rumors he would abolish tenure, cancel sabbaticals and dishonor faculty who were not doing work in the energy field, and that he was being controlled by the energy industry.
"As time went on, the rumors got worse and worse," he said in an email. "They had no basis, but I could not figure out how to control them without spreading them further. I do not think this is something special about Wyoming. This can happen anywhere and, from time to time, does. I suggested to the chair of the Faculty Senate that I have a faculty advisory committee and that I have yet another town meeting to dispel rumors. But I think by that point it was too late. Things had spun out of control, I thought."
Sternberg said his all-around goal was to elevate the reputation of the University of Wyoming. Sternberg said the board and state lawmakers wanted more emphasis on producing graduates with practical training, like good teachers or lawyers with experience with energy policy, which is important in the state.
Sternberg said people at Wyoming did not believe him or buy into his vision.
“I told people many times that we could be the No. 1 land-grant institution in the country if we were tops in service to our state and in educating ethical leaders who would make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the world,” Sternberg said in an email. “Some people agreed, but for me, a surprising number of people said they didn't believe me, and some outright called me a liar. I really did believe it though.”
It’s not clear what will happen next. McGinity, the interim provost, is now interim president. Bostrom said the board has not yet decided what to do about getting a full-time president.
Sternberg, for his part, has a wife and two-year-old triplets and isn’t sure what he can do next. But he’s been published about 1,500 times and is cited widely – which didn’t stop him from jesting that he might end up on a street corner grinding an organ with a monkey on his shoulder.
Still, since the University of Wyoming isn’t going to reverse the personnel changes, he said, “Now, a new team will go in and it will be able to continue the changes” without taking the blame he took.