When former president Laurie Nichols took the helm at the University of Wyoming in 2016, one of her first actions was to declare a “financial crisis” at the state’s only public four-year university.

It’s gotten worse.

Nichols inherited a $42 million biennium cut literally the day after she took the job, courtesy of the Wyoming Legislature and then-Gov. Matt Mead. Current President Ed Seidel, who took the reins last year, finds himself presiding over another two-year, $42 million budget reduction.

Last week, Seidel called the situation “a time of financial distress” at UW that requires “bold steps.” His initial response in May included eliminating about 80 unfilled positions; centralizing budget, facility and operational activities; a utility cost savings initiative; and dipping into reserve funds.

UW’s Board of Trustees officially unveiled its new plan last week at a meeting in Torrington. It comes at a much greater human cost than past moves: 75 staff layoffs, including some tenured faculty and 10 department heads.

The board approved a proposal that will save an estimated $13 million. The plan, which also features the creation of a new School of Computing and reorganization of many departments, now faces a 120-day public review.

Students’ lives, including their potential careers, are dramatically affected whenever programs are eliminated or funding is greatly reduced.

Faculty and students often decide they must depart for much greener, out-of-state academic pastures. Legislators and governors always say keeping Wyoming’s best and brightest from leaving is a top priority, but the state accelerates its infamous “brain drain” with each new round of cuts.

Meanwhile, surviving programs typically have a harder time recruiting full-time faculty and must hire people for temporary positions, diluting the quality of teaching and forfeiting potentially lucrative research opportunities.

UW understands what’s at stake. “The faculty positions being considered for elimination are filled by real people who work hard for this university,” UW Executive Vice President Kevin Carman stated in a news release. “The magnitude of what we are proposing is, as far as we can tell, unprecedented in the university’s modern history.”

No state institution can absorb such cuts without significant changes.

“The situation we face as a university, with a 25% drop in state funding in recent years and a need to respond to changing times, necessitates a reconsideration of the way we’re structured and what we offer,” Carman said.

The restructuring includes elimination of several bachelor’s programs: German, French, secondary education and language education degrees.

Advanced programs earmarked for elimination include sociology, philosophy, political science, international studies, architectural engineering, entomology, family and consumer sciences, statistics and MBA programs in finance and energy.

All of these programs have been targeted due to low enrollment. Still, it’s difficult to reconcile ending them with Seidel’s guarantee that “we are committed to making UW a best-in-class, 21st century land-grant university true to its Wyoming roots.”

Several departments, meanwhile, would be moved or merged under the proposed restructuring. The College of Engineering and Applied Science would become the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. Chemistry, geophysics, mathematics, statistics, physics and astronomy programs would all move into the newly merged college.

The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources would become the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and add botany, zoology, physiology and life sciences from the College of Arts and Sciences. Under the plan, the latter would become the College of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

At the trustees’ meeting, Gov. Mark Gordon joined administrators in trying to put a positive spin on the many staff and program eliminations and the restructured colleges and departments. He described them as “our opportunity to really reset what our expectations for the university are and really put ourselves out in the lead.”

But exactly what is Wyoming preparing to lead? Gordon talked about the proposed TerraPower small nuclear reactor, which might be built in one of four retiring-coal-plant locations in the state.

The private-public partnership necessary to provide billions of dollars for such a facility could doom the project if either sector decides to pull the plug. There’s also no guarantee that federal nuclear regulators will approve the first-of-its-kind facility.

Pinning much of UW’s future on developing the workforce for such a plant doesn’t seem to be a great investment of increasingly limited educational resources.

What’s truly frustrating about the Legislature’s tremendous budget cuts in 2016 and 2020 is how they have undermined popular and successful programs.

The state spent more than $26 million from 2012-14 to bring the College of Engineering and Applied Science up to “Tier 1” status. Then, lawmakers approved $105 million to construct an Engineering Education and Research Building that opened in 2019.

Thanks to scaled-back funding that has resulted in fewer professors and PhD students, UW is moving backward in its goal to become one of the country’s top engineering schools. Interim Dean Cameron Wright told WyoFile that faculty sizes are so small, required courses are only taught once a year, and he must hire 20-30 temporary lecturers each semester to accomplish even that.

In addition to some legislators trying to punish the university for daring to pursue anything that doesn’t advance the energy industry, UW has suffered from inconsistent leadership. Seidel is the fifth president in the past eight years, starting with Robert Sternberg’s bizarre four-month tenure in July 2013.

Nichols managed the inherited fiscal mess at the Laramie campus with aplomb and an open-door policy. The president supervised a five-year strategic plan that she didn’t get to see fulfilled because she was fired without explanation by the Board of Trustees.

The university is one of the primary hubs for economic activity that could help diversify Wyoming’s economy away from its dependence on the boom-and-bust mineral industries.

It remains to be seen if moves like the new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation, Tourism and Hospitality Initiative will be successful, but I hope they are given a chance to work.

The university has lost more than 500 positions since 2016. Most aren’t coming back. That leaves the remaining employees overworked and, for too many, disheartened.

I hope Seidel, or one of his successors, never has to downgrade UW’s fiscal status to code red and declare a “financial disaster.” I hope the worst is over, but unless Wyoming does something substantial to diversify its economy and its state funding revenue streams away from fossil fuels, I fear it may not be.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

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