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UW search committee hosts first 'listening session'

LARAMIE — The search committee tasked with finding 12 candidates for the University of Wyoming’s presidency hosted its first of three “listening sessions” at the Wyoming Union on Monday afternoon.

The overwhelming majority of search committee members attended the meeting, which was aimed at seeking feedback on what the university community wants from the next president.

At the town hall, university employees said UW’s next president needs to establish “unity” between UW academia and the rest of the state.

Given the significant turnover in the presidency during the last several years, employees also said the president should be a stabilizing force for the university.

Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources for the last 12 years, said UW’s next president needs to reduce disillusionment on campus and “move the organization out of the doldrums.”

“We’ve seen a lot of chaos with the change out of leadership,” Northam said. “Almost every leadership position, except the School of Energy Resources and the director of IT, has changed out in the last few years. There’s lot of negative sentiment about what’s going on campus, which makes sense, because some of us have liked many of the previous folks who were leaders.”

Donal O’Toole, a veterinary professor who chaired Faculty Senate in 2018-2019, said UW’s next president needs a “backbone.”

O’Toole said the president needs to be willing to say “no” to the Legislature, the governor and even UW’s faculty.

“We can be wildly unreasonable,” O’Toole said. “We need a slightly carnivorous president.”

Establishing a sense of camaraderie between UW and the rest of the state was also suggested by several attendees as a top issue.

Jeff Edgens, an agriculture lecturer who’s also played a leadership role at UW-Casper, said the president needs to establish a better relationship with Wyoming’s community colleges while producing research that directly impacts the state.

Some attendees also stressed the importance of the relationship between the board of trustees and the president.

“We don’t need a situation when the board doesn’t trust the president and feels they need to do the day-to-day things to run the university,” said Joseph Holles, a chemical engineering professor.

The trustees have, in fact, taken more of an interest in the day-to-day affairs of UW in recent years, a trend O’Toole said should be reversed.

“I sometimes feel that the board of trustees has pre-empted the position of the president, and I think we need to move away from that,” O’Toole said.

He suggested the trustees should hire a president who’s willing to challenge the trustees.

“In the public (trustees) meetings, there were times when the president frequently sat in silence,” O’Toole said. “That’s true of not just President Nichols. Please don’t be afraid of hiring a pro-active CEO of this institution.”

With the prospect of mediocre tax revenues for the next decade, Northam also said UW’s next president needs to “think about a world with less state support,” and develop a plan for other revenue options for the university, like better fund-raising and the monetization of intellectual property.

A new plan for funding the university is important, especially after 2016 budget cuts have put some academic programs at “sub-optimal” levels.

“We’ve been through some pretty significant budget reductions,” he said. “It’s my opinion that they were done in such a way that it has caused us to erode some of the excellence at the university.”

Former trustee John MacPherson is heading the search committee. He said Tuesday that the committee is hoping to have all candidates’ applications filed by Nov. 11.

At the beginning of August, UW announced the names of 16 people, including former Gov. Matt Mead and former state Auditor Rita Meyer, who comprise the search committee.

Both former statewide elected officials were in attendance for Tuesday’s town hall.

However, the search committee won’t have the chance to actually pick the finalist. Instead, it will merely nominate 12 options for the trustees to choose from.

Interim President Neil Theobald is expected to be a candidate for the job.

The search committee is planning to host a second “listening session” in Laramie on Sept. 24.

The final listening session is scheduled for the following day in Casper.

Those forums are also expected to be broadcast via WyoCast.

Along with MacPherson, Mead and Meyer, the search committee consists of three trustees, three professors, two other UW employees, two undergraduate students and two private citizens.