Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy
This week, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead announced he will ask the legislature to remove him from a review process that was established to approve or disapprove of artwork installed on parts of the University of Wyoming campus. The oversight committee was established by the Wyoming Legislature earlier this year in the wake of the Carbon Sink controversy. The law required that Gov. Mead and the UW School of Energy Resources governing body — made up mostly of fossil fuel executives — must approve of art installations on parts of the university campus.
So why is Gov. Mead asking to be removed from the art approval committee?
Last week Wyoming Public Radio produced a story revealing that Wyoming lawmakers and the University of Wyoming are overly-eager to appease a thin-skinned fossil fuel lobby that is used to having its way in our state policies and public forum.
The Wyoming Public Radio report was based on a number of emails and follow up conversations with Wyoming lawmakers and others close to the issue. It followed a WyoFile guest essay, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming,” by University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood.
As the story goes, a sculpture was installed on the University of Wyoming campus late in 2011, partially funded by the Cultural Trust Fund. It was promptly removed in May 2012. Carbon Sink, by artist Chris Drury, sought to make a statement about society’s reliance on fossil fuels and its impacts on climate and our forests. The energy industry viewed the sculpture as an affront to an industry responsible for more than 60 percent of the state’s revenue, and approximately 60 percent of the funding that goes to the University of Wyoming.
University donors, such as the coal mining giant Peabody Energy, threatened to stop giving to the university, according to Wyoming Public Radio. Lawmakers made the same threat with state funds. Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, wrote an email stating, “I am considering introducing legislation to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”
Lubnau later told Wyoming Public Radio, “Whether you appreciate that or not, and whether you like that or not, between 60 and 80 (percent) of your budget comes from those extractive industries and it’s something you ought to know.”
Lubnau and others seem to not understand the fundamental relationship between taxation and what public governing bodies and public institutions decide to do with the money. Paying a tax doesn’t give you any more right to say how those public funds ought to be spent than any other taxpayer in Wyoming. And to demand certain outcomes, or works of art, by giving to a university reveals a complete lack of understanding that universities require freedom of speech in order to be relevant institutions of knowledge and ideas.
As a Wyoming resident, I know first-hand that it’s common to be very appreciative of the mineral wealth we have in Wyoming, and appreciative of the vibrant energy industry that provides jobs and a tax base, while still being fully alarmed at a lobby that over and over again seeks to overplay its influence in public matters.
In his WyoFile essay, Lockwood put it this way; “The legislature can no more have a public hospital in which physicians are told not to render aid to political dissidents than they can have a public university in which faculty are told not to render artworks that offend political sensibilities. Such is the cost of freedom.”
And what’s the bigger take-home message for our University of Wyoming students? That a sculpture speaking to all of society’s reliance on fossil fuels amounts to hypocrisy in a state reliant on fossil fuels? Or that the most powerful political entity in Wyoming is threatened by a piece of art and results in threats of pulling funding?
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected].
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