Lawmakers Push UW To Focus On State Business

Aug 1, 2014

Royal Dutch Shell’s Tom Botts, Gov. Matt Mead and Hess Corporation President Greg Hill announce the additional $4.3 million gift outside of UW's Engineering Building in Laramie Thursday.
Royal Dutch Shell’s Tom Botts, Gov. Matt Mead and Hess Corporation President Greg Hill announce the additional $4.3 million gift outside of UW's Engineering Building in Laramie Thursday.
Credit Aaron Schrank

University of Wyoming trustees and the state’s top lawmakers are sitting around a table in Casper. On today’s agenda: the relationship between the Legislature and UW. Get-togethers like this mid-July meeting don’t happen often.

"This is the first time, and I’ve been around politics quite a while," says Senator Eli Bebout, who has spent more than 20 years in the Legislature. "Where we got with the Board of Trustees, the President and members of the leadership and other key legislators to talk about these things. It’s the way it should be."

"It's not micromanaging from the Legislature. It's not our intent, but we are the ones who are going to fund the University and community colleges and K-12. And we want to make sure we're getting a bang for our buck."

All the lawmakers here agree they want more communication. And what many want to communicate is that UW should be more closely aligned with the state’s economic interests. Bebout says that means more focus on extractive industry – and more understanding on campus about the role it plays in Wyoming. 

"Good, bad, or indifferent, you know, 65 percent of the revenues for the state comes from the mineral extraction industry," says Bebout. "I just think the University, the students, the faculty, everybody should understand in our state, the blessing we have by having the minerals and the importance of those revenue streams."

The Board of Trustees run the University, but the Legislature pays for much of it. That’s why there’s so much tension here. State appropriations account for about 40 percent of the school’s yearly funding. That’s in addition to the millions the state shells out for construction projects on campus. Senate President Tony Ross says lawmakers and UW need to be on the same page.

"It’s not micromanaging from the Legislature. It’s not our intent, but we are the ones who are going to fund the University and community colleges and K-12," Ross said. "And we want to make sure we’re getting a bang for our buck."

Lawmakers around the table have all sorts of suggestions—from stronger relationships with community colleges to more emphasis on the football program. But where legislators see a chance for candid conversation, many faculty see legislative overreach. There are no faculty members at this meeting. UW Faculty Senate Chair Ed Janak says faculty should be invited. 

"What tends to happen is trustees and legislators make decisions, make policy, make up their minds based on anecdote, not fact," Janak says.

There’s a deeper sense of unease among faculty about UW’s direction. In the past year, eleven top administrators and deans resigned at UW. Eight of those positions remain unfilled. Natural Sciences professor Jeffrey Lockwood says he fears lawmakers are looking to take advantage of that power vacuum.

"In the absence of that on-campus leadership, it does seem that there is a direction emerging," Lockwood says. "And that’s a direction that’s in service, in particular, to the energy industry."

Lawmakers proposed measures this year that would have required UW deans to regularly report to the Legislature. Those were withdrawn after backlash. Glancing over the Trustees’ bylaws, Lockwood’s eyes are drawn to one line in particular. The trustees are tasked with ‘preserving UW’s institutional independence.’

"So that they remain unencumbered by direct government control or special interest," Lockwood says. "That’s the role of the Trustees, and whether they’re up to it or not, I think, is an open question."

This summer, UW President Dick McGinity welcomed Governor Mead and others to announce a big donation.

"This is truly a great event," McGinity told the crowd. "One to be very happy about—and it’s also historic."

Historic, because the $10 million dollar donation announced here from Hess Corporation makes the oil company the largest corporate donor in UW’s history. Since 2007, the school has received more than $40 million from energy companies. Every dollar of that has been matched by the state. Part of Hess’s donation will be used on a research facility aimed at tapping hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. Hess President Greg Hill says it will be good for business.

"For Hess, this is a great investment," Hill says. "Let me be clear. My company is going to get a lot out of this as well."

This is part of a push to turn UW’s College of Engineering into a Tier 1 Research University, which also includes a $100 million-dollar upgrade to the main engineering building. UW President Dick McGinity says it’s up to professors and administrators to ensure these corporate and state partnerships don’t jeopardize academic integrity or the independence of research. 

"There needs to be balance, as between acknowledging the resources that are provided to the University—whether it’s by the state, or by the federal government or by private corporations," McGinity says. "But academic freedom is enshrined in the regulations of the University. Free thinking and free speech is what’s supposed to go on at a University—and we’re doing that."

Most of the professors I spoke to for this story said they have deep concerns about where UW’s headed, but are afraid voicing those concerns could jeopardize their jobs. With that in mind, that balance may deserve more attention.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.