Power Struggles At UW Bigger Than Just Wyoming

May 18, 2018

When the University of Wyoming trustees met last week, the campus was abuzz with concern about proposed changes to the authority of the board. What the administration is calling a routine update to university regulations was seen by some as a power grab that would give trustees the ability to more easily eliminate academic programs and ax faculty.

What’s behind that sense of insecurity?

Donal O’Toole can help explain. He has been a professor of veterinary science at UW for 28 years, but he said over the last four years he and his co-workers have felt increasingly insecure about their jobs.

“I always give really lousy advice,” said O’Toole, “but if I was going to give advice to the administration, the advice would be in real terms, in a real way, indicate to the employees of this university which have been loyal that you value them.”

O’Toole, who is the new chair of the Faculty Senate, said regulations that were recently up for approval by the Board of Trustees further undermined a sense of trust on campus. Changes would have given the trustees the ability to speed up the process of budget cuts in the case of financial crisis.

The issue is: when faced with a $42 million cut from the state in 2016, the trustees had some hard decisions to make and they found the process cumbersome. But ultimately, they were able to eliminate over 300 positions and several programs. That’s raised questions about why the trustees actually need more power.

“I think it’s not a wise move to say to the employees of a university, ‘we’re making this change so it’s easier for us to fire you.’ It’s not really a moral builder,” said O’Toole.  

The Faculty Senate voiced opposition to the new regulations. In response, the trustees formed a subcommittee—with representation from the faculty—to work on a compromise this week.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get something that is acceptable to the administration, to the trustees and to the employees of the university,” said O’Toole.

Strengthening communication and collaboration is high on the administration's list, according to David Jewell, Associate Vice President for Financial Affairs. But he said shared governance is alive and well on campus, and the trustees’ willingness to work with faculty on the regulations is a sign of that.

“I don't believe, wholeheartedly, that they are looking for agility to get into the day-to-day management of the University of Wyoming,” said Jewell. “They don’t want that, but I do they think they want it from a sense of if there were a financial crisis.”

Jewell has been charged with implementing a new financial management system that he said will help the university better weather state funding fluctuations in the future. And he added, that despite cuts, the state still funds over 50 percent of UW’s budget.

“If you look at the number of other states and their flagship land-grant universities it’s almost the inverse,” said Jewell. “Some call it the privatization of public higher education. The majority are funded by tuition and less by state appropriations.”  

Jewell said he sees an administration and a Board of Trustees that are working hard to guarantee a financially healthy future for the university that keeps tuition affordable for students. But it’s understandable, that in the wake of major layoffs that faculty and staff are hyper-vigilant about changes to policies and procedures.

And there are forces beyond the internal politics of the university that add to fears about why trustees want more power, and what they might do with it.

A question that perhaps needs to be asked is:  is this coming straight out of the Republican National platform?

The bullet point on higher education specifically says trustees “have a responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination,” suggesting that state legislators and trustees should feel empowered to cut public universities where liberal ideas circulate.

So, in a state that turned out for Trump in record numbers, why wouldn’t the GOP’s agenda creep into what’s happening to the state’s only four-year university?

“I just can’t imagine that those kinds of things are entering into the mindset of any of the trustees,” said Casper businessman and Republican Dave True. He’s served on UW’s board of trustees since 2013, and he’s now the board president.

“I quite honestly don’t have a clue as to what that platform says,” said True. “So, it certainly is not a guiding principle for me.”  

Laramie Democratic State Senator Chris Rothfuss said from time to time there are conservative voices in the legislature that want to control what’s taught at UW by making cuts.

“And as you look at the history of the university, even over the last couple of decades there have been times when those calls that have been louder than others,” Rothfuss said.

Rothfuss pointed to controversy concerning a piece of public art displayed on the UW campus called “Carbon Sink” that was seen as anti-coal. But he said so far threats haven’t amounted to cuts.

“Fortunately, so far the legislature and the trustees have been above that,” he said.

While the trustees might not be actively trying to erode public education, they aren’t strongly advocating to stabilize state funding for the university either. The majority of funds come from energy industry revenues which are susceptible to boom and bust cycles. It was a bust that lead to the last $42 million cut. Not only were positions eliminated but faculty turnover spiked, which many on campus attribute to a pervasive sense of insecurity.

“As we look forward, we do need revenue diversification,” said Rothfuss. “There’s a lot ahead. So, it’s hard to say what the future holds in terms of revenues for the university and from the legislature.”

Rothfuss said the need to diversify state revenue streams is a message the trustees should be communicating. They’re appointed by the governor to be vigorous advocates for the future needs of the university. But Trustee True disagreed.

“The university, I think, it’s fair to say is interested in stabilizing and diversifying the financial resources for the institution,” said True. “But trying to go to the legislature and encourage them to diversify the tax base, or get into lobbying on policy issues I just don’t think that’s the part of a trustee.”

If the trustees aren’t going to use their authority to advocate for the university, that leaves it up to the people of Wyoming to express whether or not they value access to higher education.