UW law school dean quits

2013-11-01T09:30:00Z UW law school dean quitsBy LEAH TODD Casper Star Tribune The Billings Gazette
November 01, 2013 9:30 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — The dean of the University of Wyoming's College of Law resigned his post Thursday, citing communication difficulties with university leadership planning to evaluate his department.

The move by Stephen Easton, who was in his fifth year as law school dean, marks the fifth dean to leave an administrative post at UW since the summer began.

Easton said important decisions affecting the college have been made without meaningful consultation with him or his faculty.

He cited a new law school task force being assembled by UW President Bob Sternberg and the university's Board of Trustees as a reason why he resigned.

The decision to assemble the task force, intended to evaluate the university's College of Law, was made without asking the college's opinion on whether the task force was necessary or who should lead it, he said.

"Recent events cause me concern in this regard," Easton wrote in an Thursday email to colleagues in which he announced his resignation. "I cannot continue to serve as your dean while critical decisions are made about the College of Law without the input of the administration and faculty of the College."

Sternberg said Thursday the task force will evaluate how UW serves the state in areas including energy, natural resources, water and environmental law. It will be strictly advisory, he said, and he is accepting nominations for private- and public-sector stakeholders to fill it.

The task force will include people from Wyoming and regional legal communities, the UW Faculty Senate, representatives from the College of Law and other stakeholders, Sternberg said in a news release. Its chairman will be Cheyenne attorney Larry Wolfe, Sternberg said.

The College of Law was not involved in the decision to call a task force, or in the negotiations regarding who would be task force chairman, Sternberg said.

Easton told the Star-Tribune that "difficulties in communication with President Sternberg and the absences of communication from President Sternberg to the College of Law" prompted his resignation. He cited the task force as a specific concern.

Sternberg told the Star-Tribune Thursday he asked Easton to reconsider his resignation.

"I asked him to reconsider several times," Sternberg said. "I really do think it's important for all units to get feedback on how they can do better."

The university will soon appoint an interim dean to fill Easton's open position, according to a university release. Easton has served as dean of the university's College of Law since 2009. His resignation will be effective Nov. 15, and he will return to teaching, the release said. His son, Tedder Easton, is a senior running back on UW's football team.

University-wide scrutiny

The college of law and, as the Star-Tribune recently reported, the university's football and men's basketball teams, are not the only areas where Sternberg and his administration are focusing on their attention.

Sternberg solicited the expertise of Kyle Wray, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Oklahoma State University and a former colleague of Sternberg's, to visit the UW campus for three days in mid-September. Wray was paid $1,000 to provide input on increasing enrollment to UW Admissions and Institutional Marketing staff members, according to a university document compiled at the Star-Tribune's request for details on ongoing evaluations.

The evaluation of marketing and recruiting came after UW's enrollment dipped slightly this fall. But it's not just about the numbers, Sternberg said.

"We need to do more to send our message to people in the state that this is a great place to go," Sternberg said. "It's not just a good place. It's a great place."

Sternberg also plans to evaluate the university's student housing, though he said discussions are just getting started on what form those improvements might take and how they would be funded. He hopes to perform the evaluation internally, he said, but acknowledged external input may be necessary.

Opinions from around the state have helped shape his assessment of UW programs and departments, Sternberg said. It was feedback from stakeholders across the state that informed his decision to start a law school task force, which Sternberg hopes will be filled by stakeholders volunteering their time.

"When I traveled around the state, some people have felt that we once were pretty much at the top of the heap in energy, natural resource, water and environment law," Sternberg said. "And that maybe we're not where we once were."

He said his calls for evaluations throughout the university should not be interpreted as threatening. Rather, it is a way to ensure the university is doing its best, he said.

"We should be doing evaluations of every unit and every person, including me, because accountability is key to success in any company," he said. "We're no different."

Other evaluations not called for by Sternberg — both internal and external — are assessing the university's offices of student affairs and alumni association to find ways of improving.

The university's Office of Student Affairs in June allocated $102,900 to higher education consultants Noel-Levitz to review UW's student recruiting and retention efforts, according to the university document. The contract with Noel-Levitz calls for a recruitment analysis, retention study, pricing study and academic space capacity review and its review will be completed by the end of the fall semester, the university said. The office hired the help of the outside consultant prior to Sternberg joining UW July 1, but Sternberg said he supports the office's efforts.

To provide guidance on a strategic planning process, UW's Alumni Association executive committee hired Tennessee-based Patouillet Consultants for about $19,000 in June, according to the university. No state or university funds are being used on the project, which the association expects to be complete in April 2014.

Board of Trustees President David Bostrom said while the focus on improving the university is ongoing and the number of simultaneous evaluations is not extraordinarily high, these evaluations are more visible and more aggressive since Sternberg entered office.

"When you change leadership, that makes people look to see if there is change that needs to be made," Bostrom said.

Bill Gern, UW's vice president for research and economic development, said that with each of Sternberg's recent predecessors serving eight- to 10-year terms, such a surge of department evaluations is not unexpected.

"I don't think it's unusual, considering you've had 16 years of fairly stable leadership," Gern said.

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