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University of Wyoming Pep Rally

Interim University of Wyoming President Neil Theobald speaks at a school pep rally June 20 at David Street Station in Casper.

It’s been a busy first month on the job for the University of Wyoming’s new interim President Neil Theobald.

He’s met with staff, faculty and student leaders, where he said the mysterious ouster of his predecessor, Laurie Nichols, has not come up. The university’s board has approved an overhaul of its financial aid to offer more for in-state students who need money while offering less in merit aid for out-of-staters. The school is moving along its master plan to revamp the Laramie campus over the next two decades.

Plus, in the background, questions continue to swirl around Nichols’ exit, the trustees have formally begun the process to pick her permanent replacement — ideally by July — and students are set to return to class later this month.

Theobald said he has identified his priorities for the roughly 11 months left on his interim contract, after which point he’s currently slated to return to his duties as the chief financial officer of the state’s sole four-year institution.

Those priorities include a focus on the college of agriculture, which faces steep cuts that recently drew criticism from some legislators. Theobald said he had been speaking with lawmakers frequently since he took over as interim president July 1. He said the college would focus on growing its faculty ranks — which have atrophied in the wake of $42 million in cuts handed from the Legislature amid the bust of 2015-16.

Elsewhere, he said he would prioritize tourism and recreation — the university announced a $50,000 grant to help boost local tourism just last week — while recruiting more faculty to fill UW’s new science building and to make the school’s engineering program one of the best in the country.

Overall, Theobald said he wanted to bring on some 60 faculty members by the start of the next fiscal year in July. He said he was planning on being aggressive in recruiting in the coming months in order to make that happen.

The recent retirement of some faculty — and the elimination of scores of positions under the cash-strapped Nichols administration — gives the university a chance to re-evaluate where it wants to place its emphasis and focus, Theobald said.

“This is an arms race,” he said of hiring top-tier educators. “For top faculty, Stanford, Harvard, Ohio State, Michigan are all looking for the same people we’re looking for.”

As for the board’s recent pivot to more need-based aid for Wyomingites, Theobald said that’s been in the works only over the past few months.

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“We were finding that the gap of what the Hathaway (Scholarship) would cover and what cost of attendance was has grown over the years,” he said, which he attributed to UW raising its prices and to the Hathaway receiving just one funding bump in recent years.

That’s certainly an issue not lost on the Legislature, which proposed a number of bills related to the Hathaway during the 2019 legislative session. Several failed — including efforts to increase how much the Hathaway would provide to Wyoming students.

Asked if he was concerned about what the recent turmoil in the Powder River Basin may mean for UW’s funding going forward, Theobald said he was more concerned for what it meant to the state.

“Over a period of time, our economy is going to have to evolve,” he said, while plugging UW’s role in energy-efficient research. “We’re going to need to broaden the base for inflation support for all public programs.”

As for his own future at UW, Theobald said he would “probably throw my hat in” to be considered for permanent president of the school. He’s been at UW for just over a year, having replaced Bill Mai as CFO in July 2018. Theobald was previously the president of Temple University.

“I enjoy the job. This is such a wonderful university. There’s lots of really great people. Do I have interest? Yes,” he said. “But regardless of who it is, I’m still the CFO. I would love to be the CFO going forward. I win either way.”

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Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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