“Ei! Ei! What a circus! My Circus McGurkus!
My workers love work! They say, “Work us! Please work us…”
—from “If I Ran the Circus,” by Dr. Seuss
As your (imaginary) new president, the decisions I make in my first months will set the tone for the University of Wyoming in the coming years. As you well know, we find ourselves confronted with a serious fiscal challenge. There is no choice but to substantially reduce the university’s budget. However, we can choose how to absorb this cut. What principles should we use to make the hard decisions we face? The answer to this question will come to define this institution.
The obvious answer would be to act in a manner consistent with the metaphor that has come to characterize this university and many other public institutions in this nation. We typically, and mistakenly, perceive ourselves as a business, indeed as a corporation. However, we are not a business and I am not a CEO; our purpose is not to return profits to shareholders. Rather, our mission statement speaks of collaborative learning, of an environment that nurtures mutual respect and of personal growth for the entire university community. There is no mention of making money.
That said, we are obligated to the people of Wyoming to be responsible stewards of those legislative funds that continue to provide the major source of support for this university. This does not mean, however, that we must look to a commercial model and attempt to cram the round peg of a university into the square hole of a business. Consider that some of the most fiscally responsible organizations in our nation are nonprofits. We do not expect churches to make money, nor our public schools, libraries, public hospitals, nor our state’s vital nonprofits such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, CLIMB Wyoming, United Way and Special Olympics. Rather we expect them to pursue their missions of benefiting society while managing their funds carefully on behalf of those who contribute and those who are served.
So I am confronted with a stark choice. Should the financial cuts be driven by the principles of ruthless efficiency? Cutting existing faculty and staff would be a means to rapidly reshape the institution, after all. To this end, I could work with my vice presidents to identify programs that could be eliminated — along with their faculty and staff — in a politically expedient manner, meaning that these cuts would not raise objections among the Board of Trustees or the Legislature. I could, but I will not.
The other choice is to enact a principle of academic integrity and human decency. There are no departments or programs at this university that are disposable with regard to the nature of an institution of higher education. Even if there were, I would resist dumping people into the market at a time in the modern era in which employment opportunities have never been worse. To do so would be cruel and shortsighted. We cannot build a community of scientists, engineers, artists and humanists who will direct their formidable energies and talents to serving the people of Wyoming if those scholars are demoralized by seeing their colleagues terminated and wondering who will be next. The institution will not earn loyalty, deserve trust or promote unity through the callousness of its leaders.
Moreover, as Wyoming moves into a profoundly uncertain economic future, its university ought to model how the state will find its way — through caring for one another first, and building wealth second. Indeed, I believe that if we attend to the former, we will achieve the latter and do so together. This is our time as a university and as a state to cultivate decency and foster compassion — to unite and conquer.
And so, we will absorb the coming cuts through a combination of furloughs and attrition. As for furloughs, this is a short-term solution but one that will buy us time to make calm, reasoned and ethical decisions in the next fiscal year — because make no mistake, our budget will continue to decline.
But there is no need to act rashly under duress, which is the formula for the worst sorts of decisions. My initial analysis indicates that a strategy of fair furloughs will go a long way to addressing this year’s budget reduction. By “fair furloughs” I mean a just system of progressive taxation, if you will. While this approach will need refinement, my initial proposal is for those earning less than $50,000 to have no furlough, those making $50,000 to $100,000 to have a one-day furlough, those earning $100,000 to $150,000 to have a two-day furlough, and those making more than $150,000 to absorb a three-day furlough. A true community shares its burdens, apportioning them to those who can bear the most.
While furloughs are an important tool, they will not be sufficient, which is why we must also factor attrition into our approach, along with incentives as needed. I know well that attrition through retirements and resignations is not a strategic method of downsizing, as some units will be more impaired than others through happenstance. We will need to prioritize future hires, even as we continue to downsize overall, to address these disparities. And once these harms to student education are ameliorated, I will allocate positions to those initiatives that I believe will reorient the university to address my vision of where the institution should concentrate its resources to best serve the people of Wyoming. Programs with unjustifiably low enrollment will be consolidated or eliminated and their faculty given the opportunity to redirect their teaching in support of the combined ventures or new, higher priority areas.
I am here for the long haul. Cutting positions is a short-term approach to demonstrate to the trustees and Legislature that I can make decisions consistent with the university functioning like an impersonal business. But I will not resort to political expediency, because that approach is inimical to the character of this university. I seek to build an institution where students, staff and faculty are valued, loyal and dedicated to our collective mission. I wish to model a diverse community that puts people above profits, decency above dollars and ethics above expediency. These are the principles that the state of Wyoming will need in the difficult days ahead.
“But that’s just my Side Show. A start. A beginning.
This way to the Big Tent! You’ll find your head spinning.”
—from “If I Ran the Circus,” by Dr. Seuss