Note from Pete Simpson: What constitutes a proper education? And, what is the government’s role in providing a proper education?
Those two interlinked questions are as old as civilization itself; but, answers change at least every generation and even more often as governmental and/or private needs and interests change. At the public school level, the question today is Common Core. At the level of higher education it is the growing emphasis on “STEM” — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs. Teachers of the humanities and the arts in Wyoming often say they would like to see STEM become STEAM by including the arts — if not also adding the humanities in general (history, philosophy, English, political science, etc.); but, of course, there’s no place for an H in the acronym without it falling apart.
Make no mistake, however, the issue is a serious one with laypeople and academics alike, and it has taken on more focus with the recent establishment of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming.
This month’s forum tangles with the issue specifically at the level of higher education; and, the two spokespersons writing this month are uniquely qualified to address the subject. Nick Murdock is a distinguished practicing attorney in Casper. He received his undergraduate education at Creighton University majoring in mathematics, and his law degree from the University of Wyoming. His many honors include designation as Best Lawyer; but, his most prized accolade is the Wyoming State Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Award. Nick’s interest in the humanities led the UW’s Humanities Research Institute leadership to invite him to serve on its advisory board.
Gerry Meyer’s roots are in New Mexico, but his career has been for the most part in Wyoming where he served UW as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Vice President for Research. He is a preeminent chemist with numerous patents and a long list of scientific publications. He has served as a member of the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council and as a Wyoming State Science Advisor.
Their views diverge, but, I think you’ll agree, they are edifying as well as stimulating. How do you feel the humanities have fared vis-à-vis science in Wyoming? Do you think a proper balance has been struck? Or, are we and our university on the wrong track? Let us know. — PS
by Nick Murdock
If you saw the title of this opinion and continued reading, you already appreciate the significance of the humanities. Your definition of the humanities — be it no more than “I know it when I see it” — suffices for this discussion.
How each of us came to recognize the humanities as a needed part of a University of Wyoming education might vary. Some of us may have read comments by officials of Fortune 500 companies stating that their organizations desire students with broad backgrounds, favoring liberal-arts majors. Some of us — including a recent UW-honored graduate in chemistry chosen to speak at his college’s graduation — may innately appreciate the worth of the humanities, cautioning the university from becoming no more than a training school seeking to satisfy a checklist of useful vocational skills.
For those suffering the discomforts of life’s sharp edges, the humanities have let us see the greater meaning of a life well-lived, not by eliminating the discomforts but by putting them in a wider view.
Others have experienced decades of talks with friends who remember and count as an educational privilege and blessing their introduction to the humanities. So let’s be frank. We come to this discussion with a bias — the humanities are important and need to have a significant place at UW.
The university has some history of nurturing the humanities. When, in the not-so-prosperous time of the 1930’s the Arts and Sciences building was constructed, the college’s mission was not couched in constructing a better economy for the state as one might have expected. Instead, it adopted Herbert Spencer’s prescription that it was to prepare its students for complete living. In seeming to want to make the commitment a lasting one, the university saw that Spencer’s statement was placed on the front of the building. Today, despite the elements, Spencer’s words can still clearly be read. Whether the institution still aspires to that ideal is a different matter.
For more than the last decade, ordinary Wyoming people could see what their university valued and planned, and how the university accomplished the tasks it set out for itself, in the UW academic plans. While displaying some jargon, the plans were distinguished most by their clear objectives and frank assessments of what was and was not achieved under the plans. The prior academic plans (2004 and 2009), as well as one proposed as late as 2013, stated the university believed the humanities constituted one of its areas of academic distinction and should be supported and nourished.
The current draft of the proposed academic plan that was to be presented to the trustees earlier this year does identify areas of distinction. Conspicuously absent from that list is the humanities. Nor does the draft include any discussion of greater support for the humanities. This is to be contrasted with the decision to fund a Humanities Institute with $700,000 with a statewide perspective that had occurred in the year before President Sternberg began his tenure. The current draft aligns with former President Sternberg’s decision to dismantle the humanities efforts that were launched before his arrival.
One can only conclude that the university’s pre-Sternberg commitment to the humanities is in doubt. If the Sternberg administration’s perceived antagonism toward the humanities has been replaced by the present administration’s indifference, the outlook for the humanities at the University of Wyoming may be no better. There seems to be no voice in the UW administration or the Board of Trustees adopting our bias — that the humanities are important and need to have a significant place at UW.
Should there be any concern about future UW support for the humanities? Some would argue that any further support will depend in large measure on how well UW fares with the gambles it takes in accepting the curriculum requirements the various legislatively-mandated task forces adopt in their plans and recommendations. One example is the science task force, established in 2013; the more developed example is the engineering initiative.
In 2011, the governor, apparently with legislative input, formed a task force to study energy and engineering. Not unexpectedly, the task force found the engineering facilities needed improvement and expansion. The task force further advanced a plan calling for a significant expansion of the petroleum engineering program. Expansion of the program would be funded in part by providing research and development of technologies for the gas and petroleum companies that would in turn pay for the engineering college’s research. Certain “niche” engineering areas were found deserving of support, while other engineering areas of study were found wanting, and, consequently, not deserving of increased funding.
The task force wanted the university’s financial commitment to its vision. To use the present business vernacular, the university needed to have “skin in the game.” Therefore, in “ramping up” this new initiative, UW had to come up with more than $9 million. While UW’s budget is a large one, there is little discretionary funding in the budget (as an aside, an ongoing annual $9 million budgetary drawdown would constitute the total combined budget of two of UW’s colleges — e.g., education and law).
So the $9 million needed for the “ramp-up” was to come from grants the Engineering College receives, as well as the funds it receives from companies for doing research in which the companies have an interest. If UW costs are greater than expected or revenues given by companies in consideration for research efforts are insufficient, UW is on the hook to reallocate funds from other programs to pay for the shortfall. UW’s commitment does not end with the “ramp-up” phase.
The task force’s hope is that eventually companies paying for research, together with funds received from grants, would sustain UW’s commitment to the task force’s vision for the engineering college. The calculations of the projected income from paid-for research were done during the heady times when oil prices were above $100 per barrel. As oil prices have now settled at much lower prices and gas prices do not seem likely to increase significantly in the intermediate term, one must wonder whether the projections done a couple years ago are still sound. One cannot tell from public documents.
Before entering into a major exploration or production project an oil company will often test key economic factors against outcomes to get a sense of what the future might hold if things do not go as planned. For example, a lower and upper range of component costs might be used to see how the bottom line is influenced. Similarly, the price at which the product can be sold will be tested.
Recently, such analyses have led companies to wait to complete oil wells, slow down drilling of wells on a prospect, and even abandon some prospects. None of the task force documents in the public domain indicates the task force did the type of sensitivity testing that one would expect from the industry. Instead, from what is available to the public, there would seem to be an assumption that oil prices will always be over $100 per barrel. Or it seems assumed oil prices do not matter to industry-sponsored research — a puzzling proposition for many in an industry that has seen individual companies cut 25 percent to 50 percent in capital spending in the last year.
Some worry that the “task force restructuring” of the university on a piecemeal basis fragments the university’s mission. Without the trustees’ critical analysis of the potential overall impact each task force (currently, the engineering/energy task force and the science task force) has on the university, it is possible there may be an internal reallocation of UW resources without the public understanding how this happened or the risks assumed in going forward with task force recommendations. At present, the trustees simply seem disinclined to assume that responsibility in their governance roles. And few question that some internal reallocation of university resources has already occurred. For example, engineering students not in the niche areas believe they are experiencing the effects of an internal reallocation within the college — their classes are larger and scheduled less often, with possible delayed graduation for some students.
Others may argue conspiratorial motives for all of this. I do not wish to do so. I take at face value that many, if not all, of the people on the various task forces voluntarily contribute their time with no motives to displace the humanities or other programs at UW in favor of the particular program their task force recommends be instituted. My quarrel is solely with the principle of organizing and planning for UW on such a fragmented basis. Being a conscientious member of a task force requires a single-mindedness that does not allow one to be concerned with the rest of the university outside the scope of the particular task force’s purview. Such structural restraints may drive a task force member to a myopic view of what the university, as a whole, should be doing for its students and its citizens.
The political “buy-in” that comes with a task force blessed by the governor, legislature, university administration, and outside groups may well rob the university of the adaptability to change programs as factors such as costs and the price of oil drive it to consider the bargain it has made. Unraveling this “buy-in” simply may not be politically possible.
In the end, one also must ask if the use of task forces for planning purposes complements the view that the university belongs to the state’s people. If the University of Wyoming belongs to its citizens, the composition of the task forces necessitates scrutiny. Many task force members have past connections to Wyoming, but most no longer live in Wyoming and have not done so for a long time. That they maintain a loyalty to Wyoming and the university we do not believe can be questioned. That their absence from the state makes them less in touch with its citizens’ needs is reasonably expected.
In particular, in a state in which more than 50 percent of the population is comprised of women, the under-representation of women on task forces is stark. Out of what appears to be 15 task force members on the engineering and science task forces, only one woman could apparently be found qualified to serve. Only students fare worse than Wyoming women: no student has ever served on a task force.
It is probably too late for the governor, the university’s Board of Trustees and the UW administration to reflect upon what the use of task forces for planning may do to the broader university mission and its programs — particularly the humanities. But it may not be too late for citizens to reclaim their university.
— Nick Murdock is a practicing attorney in Casper. He received his undergraduate education at Creighton University majoring in mathematics, and his law degree from the University of Wyoming.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to Pete Simpson discuss these topics in an interview with Brielle Schaeffer at KHOL 89.1: