In an era of bombastic politicians, Gov. Mark Gordon is known for his low-key approach to public office. His comments are rarely cutting, his approach more focused on pragmatism than on criticizing opponents.
So it was notable when Gordon last month wrote a sharply worded – and public – letter concerning the University of Wyoming and its hunt for a new president.
The university is searching for a new leader, the sixth person who will ultimately occupy the president’s post in seven years. The search comes after the board of trustees decided earlier this year that then-President Laurie Nichols should not continue with the university, despite her reputation for steering the school through rough waters of the most recent energy bust.
In the letter, which was read out loud at a board of trustees meeting, Gordon warned against installing “a familiar face” as the head of Wyoming’s only public four-year university. He reminded trustees of the criticism that followed Nichols’ departure and that of her last-full time predecessor, Bob Sternberg, who lasted only a matter of months.
“Struggles among trustees, the administration, faculty and other interested parties over how, who, how much, where, what and to what end our university exists are to be expected,” he wrote. “However, today, I submit these disputes have reached a volume that can only degrade the confidence students, faculty and the people of Wyoming have in their lone public university.”
That alone would have been a powerful public statement. But Gordon wasn’t done. He explained that his concerns for the university went beyond the search for a new president. Specifically, he said he was “concerned that at this junction in UW’s history, the university’s essential mission is not well articulated nor well appreciated.” He noted that some have begun to wonder if the university was “adrift” in the wake of so much turnover at the top.
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That Gordon felt the need to share his concerns with the university in public, and to speak in such unequivocal terms, suggests there is cause for concern about what might be the state’s most important institution. It should serve as a wakeup call to the school’s leaders that something must change.
Dave True, UW’s board president, said he didn’t take Gordon’s letter as a criticism of the board’s handling of the university or of the search process. He said Gordon was calling for an open search, which is what the board has established. True told the Star-Tribune he would disagree with anyone who considered the university to be adrift. And he said the governor’s request was consistent with what the board has established as far as an open and transparent search process.
However, we’ve recently learned that the university hired a law firm to investigate Nichols prior to her departure, according to people who were contacted as part of the inquiry. Two of them say Nichols’ conduct was the subject of the investigation.
That is all the more reason to be worried. The university appears to have spent public dollars on an investigation that it won’t tell the public about. It is not a surprise – and certainly not unreasonable – that some would question the school’s direction.
All of this should cause the leaders of the school to take stock of their situation, to reconcile the public’s perceptions versus theirs and to ask themselves what they can do to steer this beloved institution to calmer waters. The university has endured quite a storm the past several months, but it doesn’t have to remain caught in these rough waters. But moving beyond them will first require the school’s leaders to answer some hard questions: Why are people, including the governor, questioning the school’s mission? And what can be done to restore confidence in the university and its leaders?