A Crucial Search

The University of Wyoming is looking far and wide for a new president and is taking unconventional steps to receive input.

August 26, 2019
 
Laurie Nichols and Neil Theobald

Coming off its fourth president in seven years, the University of Wyoming began an extensive search for candidates to take over the position in July, though uncertainty continues to surround the Board of Trustees’ decision to not to renew former president Laurie Nichols's contract earlier this year.

The 16-person search committee contains a broad group of stakeholders, including three faculty members, two members of the university’s student government and a handful of politically connected officials and business executives. It’s a mixed bag of influencers, experts say.

In addition to the committee, UW will hire a third-party search firm that hasn’t been selected yet, said Board President Dave True, and requested a “search recruiter” -- Richard McGinity, who served as UW president from 2013 to 2016. McGinity’s role will be to conduct the presidential search outside higher education circles, True said, because the university will likely select an “academic-based firm” to look for more traditional candidates.

“[McGinity] was a nontraditional candidate himself,” said Ken Chestek, chair of UW’s Faculty Senate and a member of the search committee. “[The board] is interested in having a broad pool of applicants, and that’s fine … It can’t hurt anything to have more candidates, so I’m happy to see what fruit that yields.”

McGinity directed the Wyoming Business Council for seven years and sat on the boards of several companies, including Canada Southern Petroleum Ltd. One member of the search committee is former Wyoming governor Matt Mead, which also raises some questions about the political implications of the board’s upcoming presidential choice, said Jim Finkelstein, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

Political figures -- current or former -- usually don’t take open positions on search committees because of government connections, but for a state like Wyoming, having a former governor and former state auditor on the committee emphasizes the university’s reliance on state revenue, said experts from GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“When it does happen, there typically end up being discussions about how involved [politicians] really were and what the political motivations were for whoever is being hired [as president],” said Judith Wilde, COO of the Schar School.

But what’s most unusual about UW’s process, Finkelstein said, is the decision to hire a third-party search firm and call upon a past administrator, McGinity, to handle potential appointments. It could also create additional costs for the university, Finkelstein said, but UW won’t be paying McGinity for his help -- he volunteered his time, according to True.

“Typically, one of the things that search firms do have is the ability to get diverse candidates and nontraditional candidates,” Wilde said. “If that’s really their part, why do you need to bring in a past president to do that task?”

Most firms expect payment in one of two forms: a flat rate, plus a 10 to 15 percent administrative fee and any additional reimbursements; or in some cases, a 30 percent charge on the new president’s compensation for their first year -- including salary, bonuses and everything they earn, Wilde said. The board has not yet hired the search firm, True said, but intends to by mid-September and is choosing from a group of 10 firms that were sent requests for proposals.

It could end up being a significant cost for UW, which interim president Neil Theobald said has lost several of its faculty members in the last five years due to a $42 million budget cut from the state. This happened when Wyoming -- which had traditionally had a strong oil, coal and natural gas industries -- experienced the economic effects of the country’s shifting energy priorities. For the next year, Theobald is assuming the role of both interim president and vice president of finance, which he held under Nichols before her removal, and he will prioritize building up programs that generate wealth for the state, like petroleum engineering, agriculture and business, he said.

“State energy resources fluctuate funding, [and] coal production is a perfect example of that,” Theobald said. “There’s a lot of worry about what the future of fossil fuels is in this country, not just in Wyoming. We’re part of the answer … we teach people engineering, we teach people science, but we’re also doing cutting-edge research.”

Theobald described a direct link between the relatively affordable education UW is able to provide to Wyoming residents (UW had the lowest tuition and fees for in-state students in the U.S. for 2018-19, according to the College Board, at $5,400 per year) and the graduates UW then places into fields that could help develop the state’s economy, like engineers to test clean, alternative energy options. And the presidential search process, by including Mead and McGinity, aims to fulfill UW’s obligation to the state.

UW’s connection with the state runs deep -- it’s the only university in the least populated state in the country (Wyoming is home to 577,737 people, by 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates). The Wyoming government appropriated nearly $400 million to the university in its 2019-20 biennial budget, according to state documents, and much of that money was funneled into academic programs and research involving the energy industry, Theobald said.

“That is certainly one of the criteria in my mind, is for [the new president] to reach out [and] maintain contact, whether it’s with the governor, Legislature and everybody who walks the streets in Wyoming,” True said. “The state, through the generosity of the Legislature and the governor, provides 50 percent of the annual operating budget of the university … We are very blessed with that, but it does carry the burden of the university maintaining solid relationships with the full state.”

With this burden comes another -- the board's responsibility to faculty who continue to reel from Nichols’s unexpected departure as president. She was generally popular among faculty, though her position and the university’s goals tasked her with significant budget cuts, said Donal O’Toole, Chestek’s predecessor as leader of the Faculty Senate and a 30-year UW faculty member in the Department of Veterinary Sciences. Nichols remained as a faculty member at UW for a short time and became the interim president of Black Hills State University in South Dakota on July 1, the Associated Press reported.

What was not transparent was the board’s decision-making process for getting rid of Nichols, reported The Casper Star Tribune, one of the state’s major news outlets. The board held private executive sessions to discuss personnel changes prior to Nichols’s removal, but these meeting minutes remain sealed and the board asserts it has the legal authority to keep these personnel decisions confidential under Wyoming law. No one, except the trustees, knows why Nichols was demoted, and in June, the Star Tribune filed a lawsuit to unseal what they believe is public information, along with Wyoming-based news website WyoFile and Adams Publishing Group, which owns two other local outlets.

“There has been some impact on morale across campus [after Nichols’s demotion],” O’Toole said. “Faculty, staff and administrators kind of had the blues and a feeling that the university doesn’t really know where it’s going, and that came back to the issue of the trustees running the show.”

The current presidential search makes promises of hearing faculty concerns, with two professors and Chestek sitting on the search committee, which is tasked with picking 12 appointees. The committee will hold listening sessions with state residents, students and faculty before the board ultimately makes the final presidential pick by this time next year. It’s a different process than what UW has conducted in the past, True said, as in previous searches, the board hosted the sessions and relayed desired presidential candidate attributes back to the committee.

“I do take the trustees at their word -- that this is an open process, that there is not a preferred candidate in mind at this point,” Chestek said. “They had said that, and I have no reason to doubt that is true. Obviously we need somebody to bring stability to campus.”

“I would expect that candidates for this position will probably be asking what happened with the last president, [Nichols],” he continued. “My response will be, honestly, I don’t know. But they will also ask the trustees that question, and that’s up to the trustees.”

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