We think Beth died quickly. At least, I hope she did. She and her husband Tom were returning from a trip one icy December night in 2004. They were probably tired, keen to return to their home on University Avenue in Laramie. A southbound truck jackknifed on Highway 287 just south of the Colorado-Wyoming line. It lay across the highway. Beth and Tom’s truck hit it head on. In one way there is solace they died together. They were an astonishing team.
At the time I was head of the University of Wyoming department where Dr. Elizabeth (Beth) Storm Williams worked. Years earlier we went through graduate school together. She was a major reason I joined UW in 1990. I felt two things on news of her death. One was personal loss. The other was sadness for the University of Wyoming, since she brought it luster. Beth had earned — indeed, more than earned — her title of professor.
This is not an obituary for Beth. Memorials in the immediate wake of the crash were hard enough. I write this because she exemplified university scholarship, a concept that warrants close examination in the current environment.
She worked hard. She taught a course in wildlife disease to wildlife biology majors and pre-veterinary students. She took on scores of junior and senior veterinary students as externs at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. She neither sought nor received teaching credit for this. Her reward was seeding the disciplines of wildlife biology and veterinary medicine with thoughtful professionals who blended disease management skills with compassion and, even rarer, wisdom.
That’s my long Irish way of saying: she professed.
Beth had impact as a researcher. She wrote more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers. She authored multiple book chapters and several textbooks. One text remains the international reference for infectious diseases in wildlife. For years she edited the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, the most important journal in her discipline. Today Wyoming is free of game farms, which often incubate diseases in exotic species that are then transmitted to native wildlife, in large part due to her influence.
This April she published a posthumous study about the natural resistance of domestic cattle to chronic wasting disease. CWD is a disease of deer, elk and moose that is spreading across Wyoming’s wildlands. It’s perilously close to elk concentrated in winter on feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Beth recognized and named CWD while in graduate school. For years thereafter, before prions became a hot research topic, she pursued the basic and applied biology of CWD from her academic perch at UW.
She performed much of the research in her ‘spare’ time — weekends, mornings, evenings and even on rare vacations at her cabin in Sybille Canyon. More than half of her ‘real’ job involved routine diagnostic work on animals — wildlife, livestock, pets — across Wyoming.Through an unorthodox deal with her boss at UW, she established the cause of death of countless carcasses brought to her by Game and Fish personnel — at minimal or no cost to the agency. She distilled the findings into papers, reviews and reports of diseases circulating in Wyoming wildlife — and not just the big ones you hunt. Hence her discovery of diseases in the endangered black-footed ferret and in the Wyoming toad.
She taught countless wildlife professionals and others, including dolts like me, that without tolerant ranchers, wildlife will fade from Wyoming’s landscape just as they did in past centuries in Western Europe.
The societal value of such scholarship, teaching, service and wisdom speaks for itself. But those values are being threatened.
UW’s administration is now eroding what it means to be a professor.
In 2016 the administration proposed a new type of academic. They would be called “Professors of Practice.” UW’s faculty rejected the proposal, but it was put in place anyway. The main concern was that the category might be abused. We were doubtful of the administration’s stated intention to put only retired Supreme Court justices and similar retired professionals before students. It was more likely a way to bypass basic academic standards. So it transpired.
Now the administration seeks to further dilute the requirements of a “Professors of Practice.” The original 2016 language defined them as:
“Professor of practice shall be the title granted to persons who have had distinguished careers and have made substantial impact on fields and disciplines that are important to academic programs at the University of Wyoming. The primary function is intended to be instructional; however, duties and responsibilities may also include some research and advising.”
Note what is absent. There is nothing here about academic qualifications such as a terminal degree, or ability to conduct research, or competence in advising. The 2018 definition is even weaker:
“Professor of practice shall be the title granted to persons who have had
distinguishedprofessional careers and have made an substantialimpact on fields and disciplines that are important to academic programs at the University of Wyoming. The primary function is intended to be instructional; however, duties and responsibilities may also include some research; service, including administration; and advising.”
So now they can become administrators: department heads, deans or above.
Contrast this to Beth and other academics across the UW campus. Beth was a veterinarian with a PhD. She was nationally board-certified in her specialty of veterinary pathology.
As if to make clear its intention to render “professor” meaningless, our administration now seeks to create another, even more shadowy academic beast:
Executive professor shall be the title granted to persons who have had distinguished careers at the executive level in business and government and have made substantial impact on fields and disciplines that are important to academic programs at the University of Wyoming.
Will they have the wisdom of Eli Bebout? The dauntless courage of John Barrasso? The ethics of Ed Murray?
At the same time that it addles the Wyoming public about what it takes to become a professor, the administration announced its intention to weaken job protections for non-tenure track faculty. These faculty members have solid track records of scholarship, and most have a master’s degree or a doctorate. They include some of the best teachers on campus. They possess what “Professors of Practice” and “Executive Professors” are not expected to have.
Does the University of Wyoming want faculty of Beth’s caliber? I ask because of UW’s lurch toward becoming more of a technical college and a research hub for the coal and gas industries.
A second question: do upper administrators and trustees know Beth existed, or value the knowledge she created and transmitted? She was not a self-promoter. Like others at UW, she worked in the shadows, generating foundational data to preserve the integrity of Wyoming ecosystems. Wildlife politics can be rough and crass, particularly when they involve brucellosis, greater sage grouse, grizzly bears, wolves, black-footed ferrets, or CWD. As scientific conciliare to her husband Tom Thorne, who became acting director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Beth had a positive impact on wildlife policies in Wyoming.
The answer to both questions in my opinion is no, not really. Don’t get me wrong. UW would indeed hire the Beth Williams of this world, and put them to work. But they do not consider them what they are: the living, beating heart of UW. That resides elsewhere.
In the view of Wyoming’s good old boy class, Beth Williams types are not much fracking use.
The University of Wyoming is in trouble. This is not just because the Legislature cut its budget and, at the Legislature’s prompting, trustees ‘swept’ departmental accounts. The root of the problem can be traced to two basic yet mutable facts.
One is that employees are considered easily replaced assets — “human capital” in current adminspeak. If you lose one, get another. The Walmart philosophy of employee relations.
The other is a misunderstanding by trustees and our academic leadership of what it takes to create an effective public university — the type of institution UW might be, can be, was.
For the last decade UW endured a succession of failed leaderships. Part of the failure entailed not taking care of its most valuable asset: people. This runs the gamut from janitors to endowed professors. The buying power of UW employees declined some 18 percent in the last 10 years.
A bigger part of the failing is our Legislature’s addiction to new campus buildings, and UW administration and trustees’ willingness to consider that such edifices alone create a nationally competitive institution. Imagine the impact if a fraction of those resources went toward hiring and retaining more people of Beth’s caliber.
I wonder whether Beth, as a young ambitious idealistic veterinarian, would join UW in this Year of Our Lord 2018 as she did in 1982. Surely low salaries, complacency toward employees, hubris among trustees, the Legislature’s erection complex, and supine leadership at Old Main would run her off? Yet Beth loved her work in this wildlife-rich state. In truth, much as I dislike to admit it, she probably would sign on as an academic at UW.
Does that make her a fool, a dreamer, or a mensch? I don’t know.
There is a mural of Dr. Beth Williams and Dr. Tom Thorne at 709 University Street in Laramie. This was their home. Let me know when next you see a comparable memorial to an executive professor.
In Trumpian times so similar to those of President Harding and his class, it seems almost normal that a public university is encouraged to create absurd categories of professor as academic sinecures for political and business executives, I assume to assuage their vanity.
Perhaps you have heard a call and response.
Call: Tell me what democracy looks like.
Response: This is what democracy looks like.
Dr. Elizabeth Storm Williams is what a professor looks like.
Donal O’Toole is chairman of the University of Wyoming’s Faculty Senate. This was written in a personal capacity. It does not necessarily reflect the view of other UW employees.