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UW flourishes with public, private backing

In a recent editorial, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle promotes the narrative that the University of Wyoming has become a captive of the energy industry and the Legislature — that academic freedom has been sacrificed in exchange for state and private funding for UW facilities and programs focused on energy. The newspaper asserts that the quality of UW education is being eroded by the alleged energy industry takeover.

Before coming to UW to serve as the Bill Daniels Chair of Business Ethics, McGinity was a hedge fund manager, investment banker and an executive with Canada Southern Petroleum Ltd. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Dick McGinity is University of Wyoming President. Before coming to UW to serve as the Bill Daniels Chair of Business Ethics, McGinity was a hedge fund manager, investment banker and an executive with Canada Southern Petroleum Ltd. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Thanks for raising the issue. It’s important, and I welcome the discussion.

In fact, state and private funding over the past decade has enhanced UW’s academic standing, and instruction and research are flourishing across campus in a wide range of disciplines. It is true that an inability to retain some top employees has been an issue because of a five-year period of no state funding for pay raises, but there’s no evidence those departures had anything to do with lack of academic freedom. UW researchers are expanding the boundaries of knowledge in a host of areas of study, creating and sharing that knowledge for the good of the state, the nation and the world.

The university has significantly expanded its programs relating to the state’s energy industry, an entirely appropriate activity for Wyoming’s land-grant and flagship university. The decisions to develop the School of Energy Resources and bring the College of Engineering and Applied Science to top-quartile status in academic areas of importance to the state were made enthusiastically by the UW Board of Trustees. However, support from industry and elected officials for these UW endeavors is crucial, not only for the financial resources they can bring, but because the energy industry is one of the largest employers of graduates from these programs.

The objective is to help Wyoming and its people prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy by developing its own entrepreneurs, strengthening the state’s key industries and growing a diversity of businesses, resulting in job creation and a stronger tax base. Across the nation, it is understood that universities are not only centers of learning, but important engines of economic development as well.

The successes UW is experiencing in the School of Energy Resources and College of Engineering and Applied Science are occurring across many disciplines that also are important to the state’s residents. Due to strong support from governors and legislators past and present, there have been meaningful investments in programs in health sciences, business, life sciences, education and computational sciences, among others, that have significantly benefited the people of Wyoming.

UW has received support from the state’s elected officials in a wide range of academic endeavors, as evidenced by the university’s new showpiece Visual Arts Center and the expansion and renovation of the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts, which is nearing completion. Due to state and private funding support, a number of academic units have achieved distinction nationally and internationally, including our vibrant Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, biodiversity, botany, nursing, creative writing, molecular biology, business, music and theater.

Just this month, UW’s Department of Economics and Finance was ranked as one of the world’s top programs in environmental economics by the organization Research Papers in Economics. Among the world’s universities, UW ranks seventh, tied with Oxford University. Among only U.S. universities, UW is fourth behind Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale. I also would point out that these fine universities and many others — as well as their faculties and students — are beneficiaries of enormous research funding from both public sector and industry sources, and academic freedom within them does not appear to be suffering as a result.

What is the newspaper’s evidence of a loss of UW academic freedom? Its recent editorial essentially cites two examples: the unwillingness of several faculty members to speak with a journalist because of the fear of repercussions, and the removal of the Carbon Sink sculpture two years ago.

On the first example, I’m not aware of any instances in which a UW faculty member has been muzzled or punished for speaking his or her mind on any topic. In fact, faculty members and students regularly express opinions on a variety of issues — on platforms provided by both the university and outside media outlets — with no indications of any type of retribution. If any has occurred, I am eager to know about it. Give me the details, not anonymous quotes from articles in other publications.

Regarding the second, the controversy regarding Carbon Sink happened two presidents ago. Like art often does, this piece generated a lot of discussion in 2011, some of it quite heated. But, let’s look beyond the rhetoric to determine if UW suffered any retribution from elected officials or private contributors as a result of it.

The WTE notes that one legislator expressed unhappiness with the sculpture by threatening to withhold funding from UW, but here are the facts: While the sculpture was still in place, the 2012 Legislature appropriated and granted bonding authorization of more than $190 million to UW, one of the most generous sessions in the university’s 127-year history. And the UW Foundation had one of its most successful private fundraising years in the midst of the controversy.

As Wyoming’s only public four-year institution of higher learning, UW most certainly receives pressure from many individuals and groups. However, the facts just don’t support those who insist that UW has been harmed by undue legislative and industry influence. If they have evidence, it’s time for them to produce it.

— Richard C. McGinity is president of the University of Wyoming.

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10 Responses to UW flourishes with public, private backing

  1. Harry78 September 26, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    “The decisions to develop the School of Energy Resources and bring the
    College of Engineering and Applied Science to top-quartile status in
    academic areas of importance to the state were made enthusiastically by
    the UW Board of Trustees. However, support from industry and elected
    officials for these UW endeavors is crucial, not only for the financial
    resources they can bring, but because the energy industry is one of the
    largest employers of graduates from these programs.”

    Is Dr. McGinity only concerned about the industry and elected officials? Do the concerns of the faculty and students have any weight in this matter? I’m aware of one of those individuals whose academic freedom – and basic work rights – has been trampled in this process. It’s no wonder that individual does not speak up and instead is planning to leave.

  2. Harry78 September 26, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    “The decisions to develop the School of Energy Resources and bring the
    College of Engineering and Applied Science to top-quartile status in
    academic areas of importance to the state were made enthusiastically by
    the UW Board of Trustees. However, support from industry and elected
    officials for these UW endeavors is crucial, not only for the financial
    resources they can bring, but because the energy industry is one of the
    largest employers of graduates from these programs.”

    Is Dr. McGinity only concerned about the industry and elected officials? Do the concerns of the faculty and students have any weight in this matter? I’m aware of one of those individuals whose academic freedom – and basic work rights – has been trampled in this process. It’s no wonder that individual does not speak up and instead is planning to leave.

  3. WyoShan September 24, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    The comment I have is this is all well and good but we want (need?) to give students a balanced education. These days, it seems like UW is less about students and more about forums and opportunities directly for industry. Take for instance this upcoming “discussion” which features prominently industry reps and lawyers: http://www.uwyo.edu/ser/_files/docs/conferences/2014/law-agenda-2014.pdf Is this an educational opportunity or a soap box for industry perspectives?

  4. WyoShan September 24, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    The comment I have is this is all well and good but we want (need?) to give students a balanced education. These days, it seems like UW is less about students and more about forums and opportunities directly for industry. Take for instance this upcoming “discussion” which features prominently industry reps and lawyers: http://www.uwyo.edu/ser/_files/docs/conferences/2014/law-agenda-2014.pdf Is this an educational opportunity or a soap box for industry perspectives?

  5. Donal O'Toole September 24, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    This is a tad too complacent, and a little economical with the truth. A sea-change taking place at UW, as in public universities across the country: they are being corporatized. This is exemplified in part by the elevation of Dr. McGinity, in breach of Trustees bylaws, to president of UW. Dr. McGinity does not have much of an academic background – most faculty at UW never heard of him until he became, in rapid succession, provost then president. His real strengths are as a venture capitalist, director of publicly traded and privately owned companies, and as an advisor to private and family-owned companies in various industries – particularly in energy. This is not a personal criticism of Dr. McGinity. By all accounts he is an intelligent and genial man. But we are being flooded as employees with information about oil, gas and coal – the captains of these industries are what are truly being held up to faculty and the state as a model we and our students should follow. There certainly is not much celebration of other ways of living and contributing. The faculty has got the message, both from trustees and the legislature, that their 1.4% pay raise after 5 years of none is their essay in response to tiny expressions of academic freedom on the UW campus. Dr. McGinity needs to move around the faculty and staff a little more – and among Wyoming’ wealthy less – to get some sense of the irritation felt at the assault on UW. And yeah, there’s a lot of new buildings around campus. But they are not much use to man or beast if our brightest flee the campus for what they hope are more independent institutions. Our dilemma is this is happening to all of our major public universities.

  6. Donal O'Toole September 24, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    This is a tad too complacent, and a little economical with the truth. A sea-change taking place at UW, as in public universities across the country: they are being corporatized. This is exemplified in part by the elevation of Dr. McGinity, in breach of Trustees bylaws, to president of UW. Dr. McGinity does not have much of an academic background – most faculty at UW never heard of him until he became, in rapid succession, provost then president. His real strengths are as a venture capitalist, director of publicly traded and privately owned companies, and as an advisor to private and family-owned companies in various industries – particularly in energy. This is not a personal criticism of Dr. McGinity. By all accounts he is an intelligent and genial man. But we are being flooded as employees with information about oil, gas and coal – the captains of these industries are what are truly being held up to faculty and the state as a model we and our students should follow. There certainly is not much celebration of other ways of living and contributing. The faculty has got the message, both from trustees and the legislature, that their 1.4% pay raise after 5 years of none is their essay in response to tiny expressions of academic freedom on the UW campus. Dr. McGinity needs to move around the faculty and staff a little more – and among Wyoming’ wealthy less – to get some sense of the irritation felt at the assault on UW. And yeah, there’s a lot of new buildings around campus. But they are not much use to man or beast if our brightest flee the campus for what they hope are more independent institutions. Our dilemma is this is happening to all of our major public universities.

  7. Patrick September 23, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    Denying the problem is not going to solve it. If McGinty is unaware of attempts to muzzle the community, he might read the scolding from the judge who presided over the Akers suit. Or perhaps he could review the reasons behind the removal of Carbon Sink. Given that the incident occurred many presidents ago, it must be simple to explain.

    Perhaps he could speak to the Board of Trustees’ decision to conduct a search for a University president in secret or the departure of key faculty and administrators.

    There is a path to improvement for the University but it does not start with denial. McGinty’s response to the present state of affairs is disappointing and I hope this is not representative of his approach to managing UW.

  8. Patrick September 23, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

    Denying the problem is not going to solve it. If McGinty is unaware of attempts to muzzle the community, he might read the scolding from the judge who presided over the Akers suit. Or perhaps he could review the reasons behind the removal of Carbon Sink. Given that the incident occurred many presidents ago, it must be simple to explain.

    Perhaps he could speak to the Board of Trustees’ decision to conduct a search for a University president in secret or the departure of key faculty and administrators.

    There is a path to improvement for the University but it does not start with denial. McGinty’s response to the present state of affairs is disappointing and I hope this is not representative of his approach to managing UW.

  9. GeorgeS September 23, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    What McGinty fails to admit is that UW lost several academic deans including Dean Easton at the Law School as a direct consequence of legislative meddling and energy industry influence. If you look at the Board of Trustees the majority have energy industry connections. McGinty himself , a venture capitalist, served on the board of several energy industry companies. There is nothing inherently wrong with the University developing strong energy related programs, what is wrong is developing those programs to the detriment of all others programs and stifling a diversity of opinion and thought on campus.

  10. GeorgeS September 23, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    What McGinty fails to admit is that UW lost several academic deans including Dean Easton at the Law School as a direct consequence of legislative meddling and energy industry influence. If you look at the Board of Trustees the majority have energy industry connections. McGinty himself , a venture capitalist, served on the board of several energy industry companies. There is nothing inherently wrong with the University developing strong energy related programs, what is wrong is developing those programs to the detriment of all others programs and stifling a diversity of opinion and thought on campus.

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