University of Illinois official named UW president

LARAMIE — Edward Seidel, vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System, has been named as the University of Wyoming’s next president. He is set to begin the job in July.

After an executive session on Wednesday morning, the board of trustees voted unanimously to give Seidel a three-year contract with an annual base salary of $365,000, a $60,000 housing allowance and a $50,000 contribution to a deferred compensation plan.

During his visit to campus last week, Seidel vowed not to use the UW job as “a stepping stone.”

“I’d expect to finish out my career here and have a long career,” Seidel said.

Seidel was one of three finalists who visited the university’s campus last week. He was previously a finalist for the position of president at Boise State University in 2019.

The hiring of Seidel was followed by messages of welcome from state officials.

Gov. Mark Gordon said that, of all the candidates who applied for the job, Seidel “rose to the top.”

“Ed has demonstrated visionary leadership and brings a strong focus on economic development,” Gordon said in a statement. “His exceptional technical and scientific background will benefit the research efforts of a land grant university. I am excited. It is not often that a new governor gets the opportunity to work with a new university president at such a critical time in a state’s history.”

Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s superintendent for public instruction, is an ex officio member of UW’s board of trustees and participated in the interview with Seidel. Balow said the new president “aims high and that will fit well in Wyoming and at the University of Wyoming.”

“He brings a passion for STEM, the Arts, athletics, and learning for all ages,” she said in a statement. “I am particularly enthusiastic about his knowledge and passion for K-12 Computer Science education and Wyoming’s Boot Up initiative. He will add value to the commitment that all Wyoming graduates are well prepared for tomorrow’s world.”

Boot Up Wyoming is an initiative to implement computer science in all Wyoming schools by 2022. During a visit to Laramie last week, Seidel specifically mentioned that initiative as an “impressive” model that Illinois is actually looking at for inspiration.

While the states are roughly 1,000 miles apart, Seidel has noted that Illinois and Wyoming have several similar qualities, like stagnant populations and, “if you filter our Chicago,” a strong agricultural culture, he said in Laramie last week.

Seidel has worked at the University of Illinois since 2014. He began as the director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a center at the Urbana-Champaign campus that works on “national-scale cyberinfrastructure.” While working there, he was among the original co-principal investigators for a supercomputing project called Blue Waters, a federally funded project that brought one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers to Urbana-Champaign.

He was named to his current vice presidential role in 2017.

During his time in that post, he’s led the development of Chicago’s Discovery Partners Institute, a public-private research facility. Seidel’s transfer to Wyoming comes amid a pivotal time for that facility. In February, Illinois’s governor announced that $500 million would be released for the Discovery Partners Initiative to have a permanent new home built.

While in his current job, Seidel’s also developed statewide Illinois Innovation Network, which aims to foster collaboration among colleges in the state, and also oversees several other university ventures.

Before going to Illinois, Seidel spent a little more than a year working in Moscow at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, where he worked on a collaboration between the Russian Federation and MIT to establish a new private university in Russia that focused on private partnerships and entrepreneurship.

“Basically, it was a land-grant type mission to bring back value to the Russian Federation,” he said. “You can build completely new structures at a university that’s starting from the ground up … There were no colleges and departments to jostle with each other, and we created innovative activities around issues that were important to the Russian Federation. I negotiated contracts with Boeing and Rolls Royce and other companies.”

He’s also worked at the National Science Foundation and the Louisiana State University.

He received his Ph.D. in relativistic astrophysics from Yale University, earned a master’s degree in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from the College of William and Mary.

“I have had the good fortune in my career to be in positions that have enabled me both to develop the education and research capacity of great institutions, like UW, and to harness their strengths to advance the economic well-being of the regions they serve,” Seidel said in a Wednesday press release. “I see UW as the centerpiece of an ‘all-of-state’ effort to diversify and grow Wyoming’s economy.”

During his visit to Laramie last week, Seidel talked about several ideas he has for UW, a few of which align with initiatives already underway.

Seidel praised high education’s growing affinity for “interdisciplinary work,” in which professors and students from different fields of study collaborate on research and other projects.

“This is a really important trend for the 21st century,” he told UW’s faculty.

UW has made a push for more interdisciplinary work with its three new buildings on the north side of campus: the Enzi STEM Building, the Engineering Education and Research Building, and the Science Initiative building.

All three facilities have prioritized interdisciplinary work by having shared lab space.

Those buildings also feature specific interdisciplinary programming, like the EERB’s Center for Design Thinking, where art students and engineering students collaborate on designing products.

Seidel also said he wants to use UW as an economic engine for the state, especially by fostering entrepreneurship, another recent interest at UW, which launched the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2018.

“I want the University of Wyoming to be in a leadership role in an all-in initiative to help address the challenges of the state,” Seidel said. “That would mean developing the relationships with the community colleges across the state of Wyoming — building pipelines from school districts to the community colleges or the university.”

Seidel also suggested re-tooling some of UW’s curriculum to create a “pipeline of talent” that will attract companies to the state.

“We need to have companies to tell us the needs they’ve got,” he said.“It’s not necessarily a radical shift. It’s not becoming a trade school.”

During his time in Illinois, Seidel worked to try getting to build its second headquarters in Chicago. Ultimately, Amazon passed on Illinois, which Seidel said was largely because the region didn’t have “the pipeline of talent” that Amazon was looking for.

Seidel suggested last week that UW should work to significantly increase its enrollment. When the university set a five-year strategy plan in 2017, the trustees established a goal of increasing UW’s enrollment by more than 1,100 students by 2022 — largely by enrolling more out-of-state students.

However, as the university retooled its financial aid strategy a year ago to offer less merit-based aid for out-of-staters, some trustees have said that the school’s enrollment goals should be scaled back.

Seidel has a different perspective, noting that only about 27% of Wyomingites with high school diplomas also have college degrees.

“There’s a gap there and an opportunity,” he said.

Seidel also stressed an issue that’s been talked about extensively by Acting President Neil Theobald: Improving the university’s retention rates.

While UW should continue focusing on strong programming for Wyoming’s breadbasket industries, like energy and tourism, Seidel said the university also needs to work to establish programming for the “next generation” of careers that don’t yet exist.

One way of doing that, he said, is to support expanding education of computer science and computational thinking “across all the domains” of UW academics.

Merav Ben-David, a professor of zoology and physiology, challenged Seidel during a public forum on whether the new president thinks there should be a change in the structure of the board of trustees, noting that there aren’t academics currently on the board.

“I don’t know a single successful company that is run by a board of trustees that doesn’t have at least one person on the board who’s an expert in the field,” Ben-David said.

Seidel said he would be “happy to advocate” for having at least one academic on the board of trustees.

“I understand exactly where you’re coming from,” he said. “There might be avenues to make improvements there.”

Part of UW’s future success, Seidel said, will be to “expand the portfolio of financing,” including by increasing research dollars and state funding, when possible.

“Of course the state is very generous … and if you want additional funding, you have to come a very compelling new thing that will attract the state to provide new funds,” he said.

Seidel also said he wants to get legislators to provide tax incentives to encourage potential business partners of UW to come to Wyoming.

Just as with the other two finalists, faculty members also questioned Seidel last week on how he’d improve morale on campus.

“You need to have somebody in the leadership that’s a good listener,” Seidel said. “I think I have the right kind of attitude and skill base. … I have a leadership style that’s driven by vision and enthusiasm. I like to inspire my team to be excited about what they do, and I work really hard to have an environment where people want to come to work.”

He also said he wants to “empower people to do their jobs.”

“I’m very much about empowerment and guidance, but not about micro-managing,” he said.

Seidel’s hiring is the culmination of a presidential search that began in mid-2019.

On Wednesday, Gordon praised the trustees and the search committee for using a “thorough and thoughtful process.”

Leaders from Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and UW’s student government body, ASUW, also praised the search process in Wednesday’s press release from UW.

“I am confident that the trustees’ selection will be welcomed to campus by all faculty, because the process has been fair and open to faculty input,” Faculty Senate chair Ken Chestek said.

Chestek sat on the search committee and said “at no time was the search committee under any pressure to move in any particular direction.”

Staff Senate President James Wheeler also sat on the search committee and said the trustees “did a great job of including many constituents on the presidential search committee, offering varying perspectives that are representative of our state and its interests and future.”

“At every step of the process, the board sought out feedback from faculty, staff and community stakeholders,” Wheeler said.