New University of Wyoming President Bob Sternberg has embraced the idea of land-grant schools in a big way. Now in his second month leading UW, he is on a busy tour to meet Wyoming business and community leaders as part of his mission to make the university serve the state and its economy.
In a question-and-answer session at the end of his first month, Sternberg explained what makes him most happy about his new job and how one great teacher rescued him at a young age from a pigeonholing that could have kept him from even attending college. He proved those early educators wrong by graduating from Yale University and receiving a Ph.D. from Stanford. His academic positions have included dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and most recently, provost of Oklahoma State University.
Q: You have said that the University of Wyoming has a “unique role” with its land-grant and flagship missions. What do you mean by that?
A: Wyoming is special; the university is both the only public four-year university and a land-grant institution. The land-grants were created to serve their states primarily in agriculture, but the modern serves in a wider variety. How can it make life in the state of Wyoming better, how can it contribute to economic development in the state, to serve the people and the social fabric of the state to make Wyoming a better place?
Land-grant to me means educating ethical leaders who will make a difference. My goal for UW is for us to be the number one land-grant institution in the country. That may sound like hype, but I don’t mean number one in U.S. News and World Report -- leave that to the elite and elitist institutions.
Our mission is to provide access. What we want is anyone and everyone who is qualified to come here. We want them here.
The most important isn’t high ACT [test scores] or grades, necessarily. Tests like the ACT and SAT don’t predict who will be ethical leaders who change the world for the better and do it in a way that conforms to an ethical code.
Getting a 36 on the ACT — there’s nothing wrong with that. But elements of being creative and having a vision, being practical and able to persuade, wise and ethical to be sure that you achieve a common good [are desirable].
Our flagship mission is to excel in teaching and research. Some look at those as conflicting missions, but the best teachers are often researchers at the forefront in their fields. Teaching helps research because of the collaboration.
Q: How do you improve access to the University of Wyoming?
A: The first way is through marketing to make sure people in the state know who you are and what your mission is, the mission to educate ethical leaders. ACT scores and grades play some role, but we should also look to experiences in music, art, athletics, student government to look for leadership on the part of students, looking at the whole person. As a child I did poorly on IQ tests, but I had a teacher who looked beyond that number and I succeeded. So a second thing is to admit [students] for broader characteristics.
A third thing is to make sure that every student can make it financially. One main priority of mine is fundraising. The Hathaway Scholarship Program helps, but for some students, it’s not enough. We need scholarships based on need and merit. I don’t mean merit as ACTs; I want to reward the kids who are hard workers and who want to contribute.
I just started here, but I hope over time the state might consider broadening the [Hathaway] criteria. [Tests] measure the analytic skills, but when you look at leaders, it’s not just about that. They are creative people with common sense, people who don’t just care about themselves, but have a sense of responsibility, are resilient, team players. How many of those do ACTs measure? Not much.
We need students who want to work hard. The highest-risk freshman group has high ACTs and low grades.
Q: How do you ensure success for students once they are at the university?
A: Part of a land-grant mission is keeping them here. Where we need to intervene is where they need academic support and financial guidance. A third measure is engagement, connecting the university experience to your life outside. Some drop out because they don’t see the connection. We want them to not just get the first job, but learn skills for the second, third and fourth job.
This is one we want to be the top at. I want to be top at producing people like the legislators. I’m not sure if you look at them their success would have been predicted.
Q: Do you think it’s important to meet the education needs around the state, to be the University of Wyoming, not “University of Laramie”?
A: I would like to expand the model that we have in Casper. We should work strategically around the state in collaboration with the community colleges for two-, three- and four-year programs. That would be consistent with outreach responsibilities -- if people can’t come here, then we go out and reach them.
One of the parts of outreach is helping to promote economic development. I want to get more businesses to come to Wyoming. We just met with a business thinking of moving here. I told them that this is a wonderful state for economic development because it’s not as expensive to live in, it’s family-friendly, business-friendly and we don’t tax and regulate them out of existence. Most importantly, we want them to come.
The university ought to be partnering to make that happen and one way is offering education programs in major population centers.
Q. How would you have handled the controversy over the “Carbon Sink” artwork on the UW campus that offended some of the major energy companies that contribute to the university?
A: I think it’s a mistake to second guess, but obviously things did not go the way the university wanted. I do think academic freedom is important, but also we have to remember that we are here to serve the state, so we don’t necessarily want to stick our finger in the eyes of those who support us. We would go out of business. We are one of the top energy producers in the country; if you don’t like the energy business, don’t turn on the lights.
Q: What do you think of the controversy over whether the search to fill your position as president would be public, including the fact that newspapers filed suit to find out the names of the candidates?
A: Actually I think it went the way it should have. The trustees did their job to get the best candidates they could, and they made every effort to do that. I think the job of the media is to ensure that the public’s right to know is recognized and honored. Sometimes different stakeholders have different interests. It’s OK; the trustees did their job and the media did theirs. Everyone did their job in an honorable way.
Q: Would you take it personally if you were president and the university were sued?
A: My number one principle is, just don’t take things personally. Being successful as an administrator is recognizing that people have different interests. My interest is service to the state and that’s my agenda.
Q: What should be done to ensure that the sports programs are conducted according to rules and in a civil manner? What about reports of coaches using profanity and acting inappropriately? How do you want the coaches to act?
A: I’m a big proponent of university athletics. I think they serve many purposes. One is to develop ethical leaders. Athletics is one way of developing leaders. [They learn about] being team players, a sense of responsibility, working hard, putting the interests of the school first, knowing how to win and lose.
If you’re unethical in athletics, you hurt the university, the state and your sport. Look at cycling. Look at baseball – visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame have decreased because people are cynical. You can’t afford to operate in anything less than an ethical way. [In the case of women’s volleyball coach Carrie Yerty, who resigned], you can’t tolerate rule violations because it sends exactly the wrong message. That applies not only to students, but faculty and staff. [In the case of football coach Dave Christensen's suspension and fine after his verbal lashing of Air Force coach Troy Calhoun after UW lost to the Falcons on Oct. 13 in Laramie], “it’s important to be ethical and civil and recognize that when we say things that are pejorative, it can hurt the university. At the same time, we all make mistakes, the important thing is to recognize the mistake, learn, apologize and move on.”
Q: State agencies are cutting budgets, why is the university asking for employee raises?
A: We had a graph that shows that over the past five years we are losing more and more faculty to good institutions, losing some of the best people. At some point they decide, if I’m not going to get a raise here, I’ll leave. Other universities are cherry-picking. We are losing more and more. We compete with places like Colorado State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, land-grants or similar, Maryland and so on. The data are what they are.
Here or anywhere else it’s hard to maintain morale when no raise for four years. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that when morale goes down, you don’t do the best work. I’m really happy that Governor Mead called for a raise for state employees.
Q: What kind of student is best served at UW?
A: I would like us to attract people who want to make a difference. If you’re going to college for prestige alone, there are other places. I want us not to be an ivory tower, but connected to the nation. I want students who want to make the world a better place and who want to live in and contribute to the state.
I teach a course in leadership. People from the outside talk about ethical challenges they have faced. Students need to see that path and how they can get on that path. They need to learn resilience in the face of failure.
Q: What’s the best thing that’s happened since you started your job on July 1?
A: That my wife loves it here.
Q: What would you like people to say at the end of your tenure in this job that you have just started?
A: I’d like them to say that all three of my triplets (Sternberg and his wife, Karin, have 2-year-old triplets, Samuel, Brittany and Melody) got into and succeeded at the University of Wyoming. If you want to live forever, the way to do it is through your children; they are the most important thing.
I would like them to say, “He came in and said that he took the land-grant and flagship nature of the university seriously and didn’t only talk but executed." You can’t do these things yourself. As president, there’s almost nothing you can do yourself. We collectively work together to make this the number one land-grant institution, but it is a team effort.