Acting UW president promotes university, community colleges

Powell High School senior Brody Karhu visits with University of Wyoming Acting President Neil Theobald during the president’s Thursday visit to Powell and Park County. Theobald said he visited with students about the many opportunities offered by a college education — not just at UW but also at Northwest College and other institutions. (Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune)

POWELL — The University of Wyoming’s interim president says the state doesn’t just need more Cowboys — it also needs more Northwest College Trappers and other college students. 

UW Acting President Neil Theobald led a contingent of university staff and students on a Thursday tour of Park County. The local events included visits to Powell and Cody high schools and an evening “The World Needs More Cowboys” celebration at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

But while Theobald laid out the benefits of getting an education in Laramie, he stressed that wasn’t the primary aim of the visit. 

“The goal here is to get kids to go to college, not just come to the University of Wyoming,” Theobald said in an interview. 

While the state has quality college students, the quantity is lacking, he said. And in his view, boosting the number of college students could “immensely” benefit Wyoming.

“[The] quantity of well-prepared students is so important in bringing in new industry, having people create startups, create their own businesses,” Theobald said. 

Although the UW president highlighted the school’s excellent faculty and low cost, Theobald also indicated he’s perfectly happy if students choose to begin their secondary education somewhere else. 

“I would say two-thirds of the kids I spoke with ... we talked about in terms of starting at Northwest and then coming to the UW; I think it makes perfect sense,” he said, calling NWC a great community college and praising President Stefani Hicswa. 

Even during the “Cowboys” celebration at the Center of the West, NWC got some time in the spotlight. 

After fondly recalling her time as a student at the University of Wyoming, featured alumna and current NWC sociology and anthropology professor Aura Newlin offered a “shameless plug” for the Powell college; Newlin pitched the audience on starting at NWC, citing its opportunities for domestic and international travel and small class sizes. 

UW Trustee and event emcee Brad Bonner also went out of his way to mention NWC. 

“... I think everybody at the University of Wyoming will tell you, if that’s your fit, then fantastic, and we’ll be more than happy to welcome you when you’re done at Northwest College,” said Bonner, of Cody. 

UW’s visit to Park County came with the university experiencing its second-highest fall enrollment on record — something Theobald attributes to a “very intentional recruiting strategy” — and with Northwest College amid its lowest enrollment in a quarter-century. That contrast has led to some tension. 

After learning in July that NWC’s enrollment was expected to drop again, trustee John Housel complained that state lawmakers had gone “overboard” in supporting UW advertising; he suggested Wyoming’s community colleges team up to better compete. 

“The University of Wyoming can’t be this behemoth that’s going to consume our market,” Housel said at a July 8 meeting. 

But speaking Thursday, Theobald indicated that he sees Wyoming’s community colleges more as partners than competitors. He described the university as being “intertwined” with the colleges, while offering different, complementary things. 

“I think we’re much stronger together than we are apart,” Theobald said. “This isn’t a situation [where] there’s not enough students to go around. The state of Wyoming needs many more people to go to college.” 

Still, NWC and UW may wind up competing for the same students — particularly as UW works to increase its online offerings and makes a concerted effort to recruit more heavily within Wyoming. 

As an example of that approach, the UW board of trustees recently took $1 million of financial aid that had been going to nonresident students and made it available to Wyomingites. 

Up until the change, UW didn’t really offer need-based aid, and Theobald believes it will help a different group of students — including those who score in the middle ranges of standardized tests. 

“There’s a lot of kids in the state that we need to go to college who aren’t necessarily a 35 ACT,” he said. 

Theobald added that college is not for everyone; if a student already knows what they want to do, he says to pursue that passion. But for those who aren’t sure, he said college offers up a host of opportunities.

He added that, between the low tuition and Hathaway scholarships offered in Wyoming, “You’re never going to be in a place that’s going to be easier to get to go to college.” 

Theobald became UW’s interim president on July 1, following the board of trustees’ unexplained decision to not renew the contract of former President Laurie Nichols. 

Trustees have begun a search for a permanent successor, and Theobald — the former president of Temple University — has thrown his name into consideration. 

In September, Gov. Mark Gordon wrote a lengthy letter to the board that, in part, urged trustees to resist the temptation to “insert a familiar face” or “default to a perceived ‘obvious’ or expected choice” for president. Some read that as a dig against Theobald, but he did not — and he said the governor explicitly assured him that was not the intent. 

“I hate to say it, but it [the letter] had nothing to do with you,” Theobald recalled Gordon saying, adding that, “He [Gordon] and I have exactly the same goal, [which] is to get the best possible president for the university.” 

If the board finds a better candidate, Theobald said he’d be “thrilled” to remain in his position as UW’s vice president for finance and administration.

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