University of Wyoming interim president Neil Theobald delivers a State of the University address in October.

With the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees’s first meeting of 2020 beginning today, filling the university with the right personnel is the school’s main task for the year ahead, according to Acting President Neil Theobald and Dave True, who chairs the board.

In interviews with the Laramie Boomerang, Theobald and True said 2020 will be no typical year when it comes to UW’s hiring.

For Theobald, the work involves trying to hire 55 professors.

“It’s the largest we’ve done in many years,” he said. “Over the last half dozen years we have lowered employee numbers by over a couple hundred. We’re in a situation where lack of faculty and staff is an issue.”

As part of its budget request for the 2021-2022 biennium, UW has asked the Legislature to appropriate $10 million to create permanent endowments to support professorships. If funded, that sum would be matched by UW’s fundraising to bump the endowment pool to $20 million. Theobald said there’s interest from UW donors to support that effort.

“We’ve let our faculty numbers slip a lot and we’ve been talking to donors and we think there’s significant ability to get gifts to hire faculty members,” he said.

However, the budget mark-up crafted by the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee last week would only provide $5 million for the professorship endowment, with $4 million required to be used by the College of Agriculture. The bill is likely to continued to be amended once the budget session starts Feb. 10.

Theobald said the College of Agriculture is definitely a focus of UW’s faculty hiring efforts, noting the major drop in faculty the college has seen since the major budget cuts of 2016.

“We are down about 30 faculty there from where we have been historically,” he said. “What happened is we had older faculty in that group. A lot of people have retired and we haven’t been replacing them. … If there’s a No. 1 demand on faculty, it’s clearly ag, but you’ve got to remember that students in the College of Agriculture take a third of their courses in Arts and Sciences. So you’ve got to make sure you’ve got sufficient faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences for those students. It’s the same thing in engineering — they take a lot of classes in Arts and Sciences.”

Along with finding new professors, Theobald said that hiring a new director for the School of Energy Resources is also a key task for 2020.

Mark Northam, SER’s current director, is planning to retire this year after heading the school since its creation.

“That’s a critical search not just for the university but for the state in terms of what sort of research we’re going to do in not just in traditional resources but in alternative energy too,” Theobald said.

Meanwhile, hiring a permanent successor to UW President Laurie Nichols is at the top of the board of trustees’s priority list for 2020, True said. Theobald remains a candidate for that position.

“Hopefully, in not too distant future, we will have list of semi-finalists, and then the trustees will start striving toward a set of finalists we can bring to campus,” True said. “Obviously, the board of trustees establishes the policies and overall direction for the university, but the president is, in one sense, the Chief Executive Officer of the organization. That individual is tasked with implementing those policies and providing his or her input to the formation of those policies. … He or she is the one that has hands on the full operations and is responsible for outreach in state and beyond our borders. It’s a critical decision.”

Theobald is the fifth UW president since 2013, and True said that hiring a president that’s anticipated to have some longevity will be one factor in his decision-making.

“It always is a goal to find a long term leader,” True said. “These searches, no matter for professor or dean or VP or President, they always take a lot of effort. Very few people like them. First off, nobody likes going through searches, as far as I’m aware. It is good to have some long-term steady hands at the helm. I do believe that’s a very serious consideration. It certainly cannot be only consideration but it is an important consideration.”

If Theobald isn’t ultimately picked to be the permanent president, the acting president said it’s his goal this year to “do everything I can to make sure whoever is next president is set up for success.”

To him, that’s improving the university’s affordability, expanding online education offerings and ensuring the school’s “research is geared toward the challenges of the state,” like fighting invasive species, range management and energy innovation.

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