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Sternberg's stunner

Nov 15, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

The University of Wyoming's new president is gone before Thanksgiving

Bob Sternberg won't be turning Wyoming into the best land-grant university in the nation after all.

Instead, he's quitting as president of our state's only university before his first semester on the job has reached Thanksgiving break.

Sternberg had come under fire from some former faculty members disgruntled over the new chief's aggressive start in reshaping the faculty. He was embattled, but his decision is stunning all the same.

It is a significant embarrassment to UW, which thought it had its man when Sternberg's hiring was trumpeted last summer and when Sternberg immediately voiced his high ambitions for the school.

Just yesterday, the editorial in this very space predicted that Sternberg could weather the early storm and emerge with sufficient strength to pursue the plan he said would vault UW to a position of national pre-eminence among state universities.

But it turned out that strength was lacking -- either in Sternberg to slog through the early controversy, in the UW trustees to stand behind the man as he drew criticism, or both.

Illustrative of the turmoil behind the scenes was Thursday's marathon meeting of the university board of trustees -- which stretched to nine hours -- all behind closed doors. An hourlong meeting followed by Sternberg's termination would have indicated a clear and devastating lack of support. Or an hourlong meeting followed by a unanimous vote of confidence would have shown strong resolve to stand behind the new leader while he stepped on the gas and made the changes he said the university had hired him to make.

But a nine-hour meeting? That indicates deep division within the board that took all day to work out -- if it was fully resolved at all. It's fair to wonder whether the trustees spent all day trying to get rid of him or begging him to stay.

Sternberg said he was doing "the honorable thing" in stepping aside after observing the board tumult. Perhaps that's really what it was -- a public servant putting university interests ahead of his own by removing himself from a climate of controversy that he had created. Or, maybe he simply wasn't any good at the job.

Then again, perhaps it was an experienced and perceptive man seizing an opportunity to extricate himself from a position in which his trustees wouldn't stand beside him for even one semester when the road got a little bumpy.

This, remember, is the second straight presidential vacancy that UW has been unable to fill or sustain on a lasting basis through its intended process. Sternberg's predecessor, Tom Buchanan, had been appointed interim president while a national search took place more than decade ago. The board finally turned to him for the permanent position when a candidate from that national search could not be agreed upon and/or would not accept an offer. Buchanan lasted for nine years and generally is well-regarded, but it remains true that a national search has failed to find a president who will either take the job or keep it.

Rest assured, top-quality outside candidates for the presidency will take note of that when UW starts looking again, and they will be wary. Why, they will wonder, couldn't an experienced, academically celebrated man like Bob Sternberg -- who had succeeded in administrative posts at two other universities, who had been announced at UW with great fanfare and enthusiasm, and who said all the ingredients were there to build a great institution of national renown -- why didn't he last even a semester in Laramie?

One of the criticisms leveled at the university earlier in the year was that it went to great lengths to keep most of its presidential search a secret -- up to and including lobbying successfully for a new state law ensuring that it needn't disclose much about its search and hiring process. That climate makes it less likely that answers about what went wrong with Sternberg's presidency will ever come to full light. But it won't keep people from asking why the man is walking out before completing even five months on the job, a man who said he would take the University of Wyoming to the top tier of state universities.

We hope it's not because UW wasn't ready to follow him there.

Amid much uncertainty about Sternberg's departure is this crystal-clear fact: If what UW wants and needs is a president of national caliber and reputation, finding that person just got a lot harder.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Thursday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office by 3:30 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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