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.

For the first time since the spring, news flowing from the highest office at the University of Wyoming carries an air of optimistic enthusiasm.

As faculty and students – including the second-largest freshman class in school history – prepare for the start of the upcoming fall semester, interim President Neil Theobald is midway through the second month of his tenure.

He recently detailed priorities for his year-long term in the office. First among them is recruiting new faculty to fill the university’s new science building – with the goal of making the engineering program one of the best in the country – and for the college of agriculture, which withered in the wake of state budget cuts. Overall, he hopes to add 60 new faculty before his time as interim tentatively ends next July.

We’re encouraged that UW is showing signs of recovery from a massive budget cut handed down by the Legislature in 2016, resulting in 37 layoffs and hundreds of positions being eliminated. On top of that, UW recently announced a $50,000 grant to help boost tourism in the Laramie area.

For an interim president, particularly one who has expressed an interest in holding the position permanently, it’s an attractive situation. Hiring new faculty, growing programs and strengthening ties with the community are the types of work that can cement an administrator’s reputation, and should be celebrated. But there will certainly be tougher decisions than these in the months ahead, and problems that arise will need to be met head on rather than filed away for the next full-time president to deal with.

UW is coming out of a rough patch following the unceremonious ouster of Theobald’s predecessor. Laurie Nichol’s contract was abruptly not renewed with no explanation in late March, and the board of trustees has refused to give any reasoning for their decision to remove the university’s first female president.

Nichols inherited a university in crisis. Within months of taking the helm she was required to guide UW through $42 million in budget cuts from the state. Enrollment was spiraling down. Her annual compensation was almost $100,000 less than Bob Sternberg, the last UW president hired after a national search.

After her administration stabilized finances and reversed the enrollment trend, Nichols’ time as president abruptly came to a halt. Theobald is now the fifth person to lead the school in six years.

We hope that Theobald and the university’s next president learn one lesson from the Nichols saga: It’s your responsibility to prioritize the university’s long-term success, even if you personally won’t be there to shepherd projects to fruition and reap the rewards. Your legacy should be a solid foundation on which the next administration can build.

One year may not seem terribly significant in the history of the University of Wyoming. But this year will dramatically shape the lives of several thousand incoming freshmen and graduating seniors. It will define the prestige of the colleges of agriculture and engineering. And it will set the stage for whomever steps into the president’s office in July 2020.

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