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Presidential change agents

11/18/2013: Insidehighered has a report on the brief tenure of Robert Sternberg as President at Wyoming. Hired by the board to make change, he did, stepping on a lot of toes in the process, to the point he could no longer run the place. This is apparently not uncommon for universities with an inbred central administration: bring in a “change agent” to clear out the old guard, then replace the “change agent” with someone to put things back together. I’m no psychologist, but apparently the personality characteristics necessary to do these two different jobs are not highly correlated. Some tidbits:

One of his first major decisions was to oust the longtime provost, Myron Allen. … Once Sternberg came in, Allen’s exit happened quickly. Within four weeks of coming to campus, Sternberg told Allen to go back to being a faculty member. The official story – which Sternberg and a university spokesman both told faculty and the media – was that Allen’s resignation letter was received with “great regret” because Allen had decided to go back to teaching. 

“That’s what’s usually done,” Sternberg said in an interview.
Indeed, the usual practice is for a president and departing official to coordinate their statements and have a cover story. 

But the cover was blown when Allen made it known that he was forced out.
Shive said that cost Sternberg. 

“He said that everybody resigned, but it quickly became apparent that that was a lie,” Shive said. “He explained the lie by saying, ‘Well, I lied because I wanted to protect the reputation of these people.’ So, that begs the question, If it’s O.K. to lie in this circumstance, what other circumstances would justify his lying to his faculty?” Sternberg said was only following standard procedure to protect those asked to step down. 

“My trying to preserve their dignity and administrative job possibilities, therefore, seriously backfired,” he said in an email. “What I did not anticipate was the negative feelings that my effort to preserve their dignity would create, nor did I anticipate that many of the officials who stepped down actively would turn on me.”
Of course, the dignity preservation effort often works. 

For instance, George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was once a new president who wanted to get rid of a “very nice older gentleman who held the title” of provost. 

Trachtenberg told the provost he could stay around another year, keep the title, keep the office, keep the secretary — but with someone else doing the actual job of provost.
“It’s just the way adults treat each other,” Trachtenberg said.

Especially when the adults are spending other people’s money, as Gottfredson is doing with UO’s former provost, Jim Bean. (For some more outrageous examples, read this Boston Globe story, courtesy of an anonymous reader.)

This part of the Sternberg story gets a little weird:

Shive said things got so bad on campus that trivial things would become part of the climate of fear. For instance, Shive said Sternberg asked everyone to wear the school colors, brown and gold, on Fridays. 

Shive, a geologist by training, said he walked around campus and found the farther away from the administrative building he went, the fewer people were wearing brown and gold – except for a spike at the College of Education. 

“They wore brown and gold on Fridays only because they were afraid not to,” he said of the people who wore the right colors.


  1. Anonymous 11/18/2013

    If I put on my orange and black, will Gottfredson get the message?

    • vlad 11/18/2013

      The awkwardness of how to treat dismissed administrators who hold faculty rank with tenure appears tostem in part from the fact that they enjoy a kind of double protection. One as a tenured member of faculty, and a second (a year’s notice) as an officer of administration. The latter is an important part of the job security for all the hardworking and lower paid OAs out in various administrative offices on campus, probably including your department office manager. The problems appear to arise when an administrator with faculty rank is dismissed and must receive a year of the pay of their former administrative position, It would seem reasonable for a person to get either tenure as member of faculty or right to year’s notice as administrator, but not both? As for announcements, seems ok to permit the figleaf of an announced ‘resignation’ if that is what the person leaving prefers. The Woming Prez’s mistake was apparently in part a failure to make sure that is what the exiting provost preferred, and he bit back?

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