The University of Trustees met in executive session Thursday morning for final interviews with the three candidates vying to become the university’s next president. The trustees have said they may announce their choice for president next week.
Each of the candidates, all current university administrators, visited Laramie this week. They met with UW students for breakfast and then engaged in two separate Q&A sessions with faculty and staff.
The three then individually made a visit to Casper for another public forum at UW’s branch campus there.
While visiting UW, the three candidates also met with UW administrators, deans, and other employees.
During the Q&A session with faculty, professors pressed the candidates to describe how they’ll address morale issues on campus that have been exacerbated by chronic turnover of UW presidents.
“We need an administrator to come in and heal us,” said engineering professor Michael Barker. “We have a morale problem. … We literally do not have enough staff.”
Barker is the former chair of Faculty Senate and is currently chairing a working group of employees put together by former President Laurie Nichols to address the poor results of a job satisfaction survey conducted in 2018.
The results of the Great Colleges to Work For Survey said UW workplace satisfaction “warrants attention.”
The university’s working environment barely escaped being labeled as “poor” by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
All three candidates talked about the importance of personal relationships in improving morale.
“You have to reach out and build those relationships,” said candidate Gregory Bowman, dean of the West Virginia University’s law school. “When that happens, you’ll have someone who will listen to you. And if you have someone who listens to you, you might be able to get them to trust you. And if they trust you, then you can do business. It all boils down to individual relationships.”
Edward Seidel, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for economic development and innovation, said he thinks he has the “right kind of attitude and skill base” to improve morale.
“You need to have somebody in the leadership that’s a good listener,” Seidel said. “I have a leadership style that’s driven by vision and enthusiasm. I like to inspire my team to be excited about what they do, and I work really hard to have an environment where people want to come to work.”
Daniel White, chancellor of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, also talked about the need for strong relationships with employees and noted that representatives from his campus’s Faculty Senate, Staff Council and study body are all part of his cabinet.
“We don’t always agree, but we need to be on the same page,” he said.
White said he also works in Fairbanks to “let the provost make the provost decisions and let the deans make the dean decisions.”
“It’s key to morale,” he said.
Before each of their Q&A sessions, the candidates opted for three very different approaches in the presentations they delivered to introduce themselves.
Bowman prepared and presented a one-year plan for himself, talking about how he would spend the beginning of his tenure as UW president.
Bowman pledged to visit all of Wyoming’s 23 counties in his first year and prepare three progress reports on his administration’s work during that first year. Bowman said he’d want to revisit UW’s current strategic plan in Spring 2021 to determine if some of its metrics should change.
During White’s presentations, he shared pictures of his family and talked at length about their hobbies, which include moose hunting, horseback riding, snowmobiling, skiing and fishing.
White grew up in northern Colorado and has lived in Alaska for the last year since beginning his career at the Fairbanks school about 25 years ago.
Seidel was the only candidate to forego a slideshow presentation, instead giving an extemporaneous speech that detailed his work on economic development in Illinois and presented a vision for UW’s future.
All three indicated no desire to use UW as a “stepping stone.”
“I’d expect to finish out my career here and have a long career,” Seidel said.
“I’m in it for the long-game,” White said. “I’m 52. I have years to contribute.”
Using UW as an economic engine for Wyoming was also a common theme among all three candidates.
“I want the University of Wyoming to be in a leadership role in an all-in initiative to help address the challenges of the state,” Seidel said. “That would mean developing the relationships with the community colleges across the state of Wyoming — building pipelines from school districts to the community colleges or the university.”
Seidel also suggested re-tooling some of UW’s curriculum to create a “pipeline of talent” that will attract companies to the state.
“It’s not necessarily a radical shift. It’s not becoming a trade school,” Seidel said.
One of UW’s recent focuses — interdisciplinary research — is a “really important trend for the 21st century,” Seidel said.
White noted that, like Alaska, Wyoming has research niches, like biodiversity, that it can make greater investments in.
“(The University of Alaska) is the global leader in arctic science, and we have people that come from around the globe to do arctic science,” White said. “I think a question for Wyoming is what’s the thing that people will come from around the world to the University of Wyoming. I think there are strengths. Your petroleum engineering is leading the country in fracking technology and understanding the subsurface structure.”
Bowman praised the state’s recent efforts on carbon capture, sequestration and storage. He said he wants UW to become the “global leader” in both energy and sustainability research.
Bowman also said UW should put a greater emphasis on international programming.
“I do think there will need to be more and more engagement with China,” he said. “I think that that will be essential for a powerhouse economy that will continue to grow. There are energy needs there and really dire sustainable developmental and environmental issues. — also the Middle East, and I know there are some interactions and with the Middle East.
The trustees have said they might announce their choice for president next week.