A recent story making the rounds at the University of Wyoming claims that contractors are replacing metal siding on the visual arts building with stone, and doing so at the sole request of state senator and majority floor leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie). The work was said to cost $150,000. This story — which university officials claim misstates several facts — made its way to the faculty email list, then to a blog titled “Unofficial UWYO News,” and eventually to Twitter.
To some faculty members, the reworking of a practically new building seemed a classic example of a top state legislator wielding his political influence to micromanage affairs on campus, without input from faculty.
It’s true that stone is replacing the metal siding on the art building, but the story about how and why has more complexity and perhaps less intrigue than the initial claim suggests.
At least a dozen community members and local officials complained to administration about the metal siding that was clearly visible from 22nd street, which goes by the football stadium, according to university director for governmental affairs Mike Massie. The university’s facilities planning office took that input and made the decision to use leftover construction money to remove the metal siding and install stone. They did so largely in recognition of the fact that the building plans hadn’t been opened to public review during the design phase, Massie said.
The fact that the story of Sen. Nicholas acting alone gained traction on campus makes clear that distrust and communication problems persist at a university that is still recovering from a year of tumultuous leadership changes. The past two years saw the resignation of two university presidents, the turnover of three vice presidents for academic affairs, and the departure of seven out of 10 deans.
Faculty members are nervous about criticizing the legislature’s recent initiatives on campus, which have resulted in new high-profile partnerships between the state, the university, and the energy industry. Several professors with views relevant to this article would not go on the record about changes at UW, for fear of seeing their department budgets cut, or hurting their chances of making tenure.
The temptation among some legislators and energy industry leaders to impose their will on the university is well documented. The most high-profile example: In 2012, the university buckled to pressure from energy industry and legislators to remove the Carbon Sink sculpture (and emails revealed the motives) because they perceived it as an affront to Wyoming’s fossil fuel industry.
“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,” wrote Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) in a 2011 message to university administrators criticizing the Carbon Sink sculpture.
As students arrive on campus for the fall semester, faculty senate president Edward Janak says he is hopeful that this year will offer more opportunities for faculty to communicate with lawmakers about what the growing university needs to prosper. The newly-named vice president for academic affairs David Jones is moving forward key planning initiatives that require faculty input. Jones is also finalizing search committees that will select permanent deans by next summer.
One of UW President Dick McGinity’s main goals, he says, is to reconnect the university with its constituents around the state, and do away with the notion that outside interests pose a threat to the mission of the land grant school.
Regardless of the changes playing out in among the administration in Old Main, faculty senate president Janak said many professors and students are looking forward to getting back to teaching and learning.
“For a lot of faculty the mix-ups in academic affairs really don’t impact their work,” Janak said. “The faculty are primed and ready to roll for a new year.”
A series of shakeups among academic administration at the University of Wyoming over the summer has continued an atmosphere of uncertainty that began with the departure of former president Tom Buchanan in 2013. It escalated with the arrival of president Robert Sternberg, whose 5-month tenure brought the dismissal of provost Myron Allen, and coincided with the departure of three associate vice presidents for academic affairs, and six of 10 academic deans.
Then Sternberg himself resigned last November upon realizing he no longer had 100 percent support from the trustees. The exact reasons for the trustees’ disapproval remain unknown due to a non-disclosure agreement that was part of Sternberg’s severance package, which included $575,000 in salary, deferred compensation, and severance payments.
In January of 2014, university trustees decided to forego a nationwide presidential search and named interim vice president for academic affairs Dick McGinity as president for a two-year term. McGinity, a business professor and former oil company executive, was well-regarded by many on campus. However, some questioned his academic credentials, and several members of the faculty had concerns that trustees rushed the selection of a new president. Trustees claimed the decision was necessary to demonstrate stability to lawmakers when going into the budget session. They also worried whether the university would have any chance of conducting a successful presidential search given the upheaval caused by Sternberg’s tumultuous tenure and departure.
While McGinity’s selection in January was intended to bring a period of calm to campus, by May the academic administration of the university saw more changes, beginning with the sudden departure of new interim vice president for academic affairs Maggie Murdock. Following Myron Allen and Dick McGinity, Murdock was the third person to leave the university’s top academic post in less than a year. David Jones, the interim associate vice president for academic personnel and budgets, stepped in to replace Murdock in May.
Then in June interim associate vice president for graduate education and dean of engineering Khaled Gasem did not renew his interim contract, and was replaced by Al Rodi as interim dean of engineering. Gasem had originally come to UW as Sternberg’s choice to replace engineering dean Robert Ettema, who stepped down last fall.
“I think the faculty had imagined or hoped that the purge that Sternberg put us through would be over with,” said Jeffrey Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities. “There is certainly ongoing concern about the turnover of experienced administrators with institutional memory at the University of Wyoming.”
At present, several positions in the division of academic affairs remain in flux. The associate vice president for graduate education position remains vacant, while the deans of engineering, education, law, and business are working on an interim basis.
“The problem with an interim administrator is they are only going to carry so much weight because they are temporary,” Lockwood said. “If an interim administrator tells you ‘here is what we are going to do next year,’ and a new person comes in, the slate is wiped clean. There can be no long-term planning because when a new administrator comes there is a whole new day and we are starting from zero. An interim administrator keeps the paperwork going and the wheels turning, but in terms of direction and allocation of resources, it’s just not going to happen.”
University of Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin said it is important that people in interim positions not be considered lame ducks. For some, interim jobs serve as a trial period before a longer appointment. “I can see how people would perceive interims as really only a step above vacancy,” said Baldwin. “I’ve learned there is a very significant difference between vacancy and interim.”
The interim situation improved with the recent appointment of David Jones to the vice president for academic affairs for a two-year term ending in summer of 2016. At that point, both Jones’ position and the president’s position will have to be readdressed. In the meantime McGinity and Jones say they hope that their extended appointments will allow candidates for the permanent dean jobs to know who they will be working for — at least until 2016.
According to Jones, initiatives to remake the college of engineering and approve a university academic plan are still underway. The university is also making progress on legislative directives to streamline transfers from community colleges and recruit more undergraduates.
“Like many institutions it is bigger than one person,” Jones said. “I look at what the needs are and what the opportunities are for the university and regardless of who is in this position, those opportunities are the same.”
Even so, faculty nervousness about turnover in academic affairs is “completely understandable,” Jones said. “Hopefully with some stability out of this office now, there shouldn’t be any significant change for a few years. Obviously there has been a lot of instability in this office, but I would say with regard to the mission of the university and what our goals are, and what we want to accomplish, I don’t think that has changed at all.”
As the semester opens, Janak said that faculty are eager to hear more about the procedures and plans for selecting new deans. Jones hopes to finalize the search committees and processes in the next few weeks.
As the state’s only four-year institution, the University of Wyoming receives a large part of its budget through the legislative appropriations process. The money comes through a $350 million block grant each biennium.
Not surprisingly, legislators feel a responsibility to make sure money is being spent wisely. Over the past couple of years, lawmakers and trustees have sought to refocus the university on its land grant mission, with a particular emphasis on energy and engineering — fields that are essential to Wyoming’s natural resources economy.
“We receive more money in our budget from the state legislature than any other four year institution in the nation,” Janak said. “That means there is going to be increased scrutiny from the legislature. I don’t think there are any faculty members who think there should be no legislative input.”
Still, the legislative focus has brought criticism from some in the university community who think the administrative turnover has given the legislature too large a role in campus policy, and that legislative interjection played a large role in the shakeup in the first place.
“The vacuum in leadership is creating an opportunity for people outside the university to call the shots rather than to do it internally with outside input,“ said Lockwood. “I would much prefer having our current slate of administrators who are experienced with teaching and research allocating resources for the wellbeing of the students and the institution, rather than a bunch of politicians or industrialists who have no experience with what the university is doing.“
Some faculty, particularly those who aren’t involved in fields that the legislature favors, feel that the school is being turned into “energy university.” They worry the changes come at the expense of institutional independence, broad-based intellectual curiosity, and academic freedom.
Rightfully or not, faculty fear reprisals if they criticize the energy industry or the legislature. Janak said there may have been some validity to those fears in the past. “I think a lot of people are starting with a clean slate at this point,” he said with regard to fears of reprisals. “I’d like to think that that is not going to be an issue in the future.”
That said, it’s clear that some faculty are still worried about speaking up, which was made clear by their unwillingness to be quoted in this story.
Going forward Janak said he hopes that the university will resume progress on its five-year academic plan, which had been put on hold due to the turnover in upper administration.
“Once we can get a good solid academic plan and facilities plan we can go to them and say, ‘Here are the needs of the university as the people who work here see it,’” Janak said. I think faculty need to be consulted and heard a lot more often than has been the case in the last few years.”
At the same time, university spokesman Chad Baldwin says President McGinity has made it a major priority for to improve the university’s engagement with the public.
“McGinity has arrived at the idea that we have great opportunities at this university, and we won’t be able to fully realize the opportunities that are out there if the university community views outside interests as a threat,” Baldwin said. “This is a repeated refrain from the president.”
Janak said professors are already responding to the call for engagment. “All faculty are starting to think of ways we could all start doing more outreach,” Janak said. “There are many programs that are taking those first steps.”
What we know about the art building issue
As for the new stone siding on the Visual Art Building, Sen. Nicholas, who volunteers on the Laramie Beautification Committee, did have concerns about the appearance of the metal siding — and so did a dozen other members of the community, according to Mike Massie, university director of governmental relations. Massie said the people who contacted him about the metal siding on the building included Nicholas and two other legislators, two members of the city council, a county commissioner, two bankers, and several faculty members.
Those concerns were passed along to the facilities planning office, which independently — according to Massie — chose to replace the siding with stone. The reason the building has metal paneling on northeast side to begin with was that there had been talk of expanding the building in that direction in the future, according to facilities planning director Larry Blake.
The project was paid for using $223,619 of the $1 million in construction funds that remained when the $30 million building project came in under budget. According to the original appropriation the leftover funds could only be used for construction. The remainder of the leftover funds was redirected to the construction of the Performing Arts Building.
Facilities planning architect Merl Haworth said he communicated the decision to members of the art department more than 10 months ago. Facilities planning also took steps to keep the work from disrupting teaching.
While art faculty weren’t asked about their view of the proposed exterior changes, Massie said the facilities office took extensive input from faculty on the interior construction of the building during the design phase several years ago.
The use of stone on the east side of campus is increasing as new buildings fill in the mostly open area, Blake said. That’s part of a legislative priority that is embraced by the campus planning office: When possible, new construction should reference the appearance of stone buildings in the center of campus in new construction to match the “university brand.”
The amount of stone placed on each building varies according to the amount of money available. Buildings constructed on tight budgets often have siding from metal, stucco, brick, and other cheaper materials.
“It is important to point out that the University of Wyoming is public land grant university and the flagship school,” Massie said. “These were public funds that built this (Visual Arts) building and it is absolutely consistent for the public to be involved and commenting about what the building looks like. These (buildings) are not strictly for the faculty. The fact that they have adequate space and tools is extremely important, but the public also should have a chance to have their say at some point. It would have been far better for them to have a chance to comment on it before it got built, but that wasn’t offered. And instead they followed the path that was open to them, which was to comment after the building was constructed.”