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GUEST COLUMN: UW needs to follow the ‘Code’

Posted: Friday, Nov 23rd, 2012

The University of Wyoming has taken plenty of heat for its actions lately — from the removal of a piece of questionably inspired artwork displayed on the campus to its response after an obscenity-laced tirade was unleashed by Cowboy football Coach Dave Christensen in the wake of a loss to Air Force. 

There are those who think the decision to keep the identity of the people being considered to replace outgoing President Tom Buchanan a secret until an individual is chosen and hired is the third in a series of significant mistakes by decision-makers at UW. I’m not one of them – because I happen to think only one of those moves was a mistake.

I applauded the decision to remove “Carbon Sink” from university property and think Christensen was punished more than enough for his transgression. But I believe university trustees showed terrible judgment in accepting the advice of an out-of-state search firm that suggested keeping the identity of all candidates for the President’s position a secret.

Like many Wyoming residents, I was offended by the willingness of the university, which receives a disproportionate share of its funding from the fossil fuel industry, to commission and display a piece of art that so clearly attacked the very industry that employs so many and has allowed state and local government to create a strong infrastructure and provide a wealth of services at little cost to residents without having to engage in deficit spending.

‘Carbon Sink’ had no place at the University of Wyoming and I was glad to see it go. It really didn’t matter to me if the school chose to remove it because of a busted sprinkler, high maintenance costs or simply because officials acknowledged the ideals and beliefs of the majority of Wyoming people in regards to the mineral industry.

As for the handling of Coach Christensen’s profane outburst against Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun, I think the school probably responded as best it could under the circumstances. As a Pokes fan and longtime coach myself, I was pretty disgusted by the willingness of the coaching staff of one of this country’s military academies to have a player fake an injury to gain an advantage in the contest. There’s a big part of me that’s glad Christensen called Calhoun on the ploy. I only wish it had happened in a tunnel or room under the stadium instead of in the middle of the field where somebody from the Academy with a recording device at the ready could capture the moment on video.

The coach apologized for his remarks, as he should have, and when the video went viral, the university suspended him for a game and slapped a $50,000 fine on him. I thought the punishment was more than sufficient, and the faith the Cowboys showed in Christensen at a time when the team was struggling has been justified by a string of three straight conference victories that has helped salvage the season in spite of numerous distractions.

I think the majority of this state’s residents were comfortable with the actions of UW decision-makers in both of these instances, but I honestly don’t understand what would make Trustees believe that the people of Wyoming will support their desire to keep us from knowing the identities of the people they are considering to lead the university after Buchanan retires.

The university is doing so at the behest of Greenwood/Asher and Associates, a Florida company that has undertaken the task of identifying suitable presidential candidates at a cost of $89,000 plus expenses. At that price, you would think the university would be dictating the terms under which the search would be conducted to the company, and not the other way around. (Ironically, Greenwood/Asher is also handling the search for a new president at the University of Florida, and those candidates’ names are being made public.)

UW Board of Trustees President Dave Bostrom, in an opinion piece published last week, pointed out that Wyoming’s open meetings law allows public bodies to privately consider the appointment or employment of a public officer, professional person or employee, and that is correct.

But it’s not right.

Once the university and the search firm have identified a list of finalists for the position, not only should the names of those four or five people be released to the public, but the public should have an opportunity to meet them, or at least hear them speak, in an assembly of some kind at UW.

Bostrom indicated that “confidential searches yield bigger, better candidate pools than searches that disclose candidate names,” and he’s probably right again. He points out that some potential candidates may hesitate to apply for the job for fear of backlash from current employers. But once finalists are named, I would hope they would possess the courage, confidence and honesty to inform their present bosses that they are at least exploring an opportunity somewhere else.

I am not foolish enough to think that all of the people employed by this university, including the president, will stay here until they retire, but after watching a number of high-profile coaches sneak off in the dead of night, I would at least hope that we are actively seeking people for university positions who will have the decency to let us know if they are testing the waters elsewhere. If we don’t expect our presidential candidates to do that for their current employers, how can we expect them to do it for us when and if they ever do decide that the grass is greener on the other side of the next fence?

Aren’t honesty, integrity and conviction qualities we should be seeking in our next president anyway? Don’t we also want to find out before the decision is made to hire someone that they will stand up under the scrutiny of the media and be met with approval by the majority of the people in the state they hope to serve?

In 2010, the Wyoming State Legislature adopted the “Code of the West” as the state’s official statement of ethics and at least half of the 10 points outlined in it pertain to this situation.

First and foremost, the Code calls for all of us to “Ride for the Brand,” and we should expect the candidates to demonstrate their commitment to doing so by expecting them to show at least enough loyalty to the brand they currently ride for to inform their bosses that they are considering a move to another outfit.

The Code also challenges Wyomingites to “Take Pride in Your Work,” “Always Finish What You Start,” and “When You Make a Promise, Keep It.” If the candidates for the UW president’s position aren’t willing to make their interest known publicly, I would think they are failing to adhere to at least one — and probably more — of these lines in the code.

Finally, the Code directs us to “Do What Has To Be Done,” and in this case, I believe the Board of Trustees has to do the right thing and inform all candidates for the position that if they become finalists, they will be expected to stand before the people of Wyoming and proudly proclaim their interest in the position.

 Bob Bonnar is the associate publisher of the News Letter Journal, and the president of the Wyoming Press Association. He is also a member of the Weston County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees in Newcastle.

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