UW President McGinity reflects on first year in Old Main

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LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — When Dick McGinity first stepped foot into Wyoming in 1988, he was anything but a cowboy. It didn't take long, however, to garner a cowboy's nickname.

"I took him for his first horseback ride and he looked a little inept," said Ken Neal, a ranch manager now living in Dubois. "I call him 'Wrong Way.' The first bunch of cows he went to move, he took the wrong way."

That was more than 25 years ago. Now, far removed from his fledgling days as a Wyomingite, McGinity occupies a different saddle atop a horse that is surely more prone to buck: the University of Wyoming.

After one year at the presidential reins of UW, McGinity, who's rarely found without clothes both brown and gold, feels confident about his first year as head of a flagship university, but leaves gauging his performance up to his peers.

"I would leave it up to others to judge that," McGinity said. "All I can tell you is I've worked as hard as I could to get up the learning curve. I've given as much effort as I could."

McGinity became UW's 25th president after serving as vice president of academic affairs under then-President Bob Sternberg. Sternberg's tenure as president, which lasted less than five months, was highlighted by controversy, including the departure of five UW administrators, either because of demotion, resignation or leaving for other jobs. When a pressured Sternberg officially resigned in November 2013, McGinity was named interim president, then president roughly two months later.

For inheriting a university in a time of upheaval, amidst uncertainty and disorder, McGinity stressed he wasn't alone in turning the tide.

"A year ago, everybody stepped up," he said. "The faculty and staff put all that turmoil and confusion behind them, got back to work to do right by the students, got on with the research and paid attention to the Legislature and trustees in how we could do better."

Those who work alongside and ultimately assisted McGinity in his transition to president, have said they appreciate his willingness to learn.

"We had that difficult transition last fall and he stepped in and has been 100 percent responsive to anything I've needed to communicate with him," said Sara Axelson, UW's vice president of student affairs. "He's kept the ship moving forward in terms of our planning."

The rise to the presidency wasn't without challenges. McGinity said he is still coming to grasps with the number of statewide interests that intersect at UW.

"The thing that took me quite a while to get my mind around is the number of constituencies the university has and to which it needs to listen," he said. "The need to do that is something quite different from the six years I was in the classroom and the almost 30 years of experience in business. That reality is magnified by the fact the university is the only four-year institution in the state."

Such magnification becomes even greater when interacting daily with the Wyoming Legislature. Chris Boswell, UW's vice president of governmental and community affairs, has been with the university through three presidential administrations, including McGinity. Boswell said McGinity played a paramount role in stabilizing the university following the departure of Sternberg, along with improving relationships with the Legislature and community colleges.

"It was so critical that the university attempt to recover from several transitions in the space of a few months, get back to business and begin to get through the process of filling positions and he's been able to do that," Boswell said. "Generally, when one becomes president of a university, one has spent their entire life gearing for that eventuality. Dick rose from the ranks of the faculty to president in virtually weeks, and that's a demanding task for anyone. He played a very key role in an odd time."

Powell's Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa started her presidential tenure just a few months before McGinity. Hicswa said she hasn't heard of any UW president appearing on community college campuses as much as McGinity does.

"Northwest College is the farthest away from Laramie and he has made it a priority to be on our campus and interact with our community," she said. "There have been ongoing challenges for students transferring to the university and he has made it a priority, developed a task force to work on it and has been on campus no less than three times.

"That's just huge."

On the legislative side, McGinity said his relationship with the university's "natural partners" has gone smoothly thus far, with room for advancement.

"I would like to think it's improving," he said. "Working together is not difficult. It takes time, effort and relationship building, but those are very important relationships and my sense right now is that they're pretty good. Investing enough time to do all that is the hard part."

With Albany County delegates leading both houses of the Wyoming Legislature, McGinity might have it easier than some of his predecessors. Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, and Sen. Phil Nicolas, R-Laramie, McGinity said, put UW in an advantageous position.

"To have those two right here in Laramie, in their positions, it's a great position for the university to be in," McGinity said. "The university today is in as favorable a spot as perhaps it has ever been in terms of the importance with which it is perceived out there in the state and the opportunities it has to positively influence the state."

Bill Gern has served as UW's vice president for research and economic development since 1995, but came on as an assistant professor in 1979. If anyone knows UW during stable times, it's Gern.

"Dr. McGinity immediately started to provide stability I think we have to have moving forward," Gern said. "This is a very big and complex place. He's had a very fast learning curve."

UW enters 2015 with several sweeping initiatives focused on propelling engineering and science programs to "top-tier" status. Despite some faculty backlash toward the selectivity of UW's programmatic and facility overhauls, McGinity said the university needs to take small steps in addressing these matters.

"There's got to be some prioritization," he said. "The decision with respect to the Science Initiative was we needed to look at those facilities that were in the worst shape and that's what we did. In the best of all worlds, every part of the university will have its turn as we go forward, but we really need to work on those areas that are really far behind."

The UW Board of Trustees approved a two-and-a-half-year contract for McGinity when he was initially named president. Though only a year into his presidency, McGinity said he is not opposed to a second term.

"I serve at the pleasure of the trustees," McGinity said. "If the university is making progress and the trustees feel sufficient confidence in me to stay on longer, I'm available, but there's only one thing that counts. To quote Coach (Bill) Belichick, 'You are what your track record says you are and that's the only thing that counts.'"

If you were to ask McGinity's boss about that track record, he'd say it's pretty good so far. David Palmerlee, president of the UW Board of Trustees, said McGinity's leadership is embodied by his good communication habits and attitude.

"I would say his first year has been terrific," Palmerlee said. "The thing I appreciate most is he has been totally welcoming of a more involved and active board of trustees. He is willing to engage with anybody. My touchstone is communication and I think he feels the same way. We have great things in front of us."

It's been decades since McGinity's first Wyoming ride. In between his first misadventures on horseback and his appointment as president, he continued to build a successful career in venture capitalism and private equity, served more than seven years on the Wyoming Business Council Board of Directors, along with several other public and private company boards and spent nearly seven years as a UW professor. "Wrong Way" has also found time to improve his equine abilities.

"Now, he looks damn well on a horse," Neal said. "He wears a good hat, too."

Still, McGinity's first ride serves as a lasting lesson in his rapid ascendance.

"Every time you go out there riding, you know how you want to do it, but you always have to be prepared for something else happening," McGinity said. "You know, suddenly the weather could turn bad, a horse could come up lame or some other problem you have to deal with. You have to make a decision.

"That's the way it is if you live and work out there. You've always got a plan and an approach, but you have to be flexible."


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com

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