The public comment session is a quiet affair at most University of Wyoming Board of Trustees meetings, typically a time for trustees to stretch their legs, fetch coffee or go to the bathroom. Not so at the November 2018 meeting. During that 30-minute session, a line of speakers filed one-by-one to the microphone to address the pending closure of the Biodiversity Institute, including: a graduate student from the program in ecology, UW’s most successful PhD offering; a woman from the Audubon Society; the head of zoology and physiology, one of the most research-active departments on campus; a past director of the BI; its current director; and me, a professor of veterinary science and chairman of the faculty senate.
At issue was the fate of the BI and what the administration should do about it.
The institute was created in September 2012 as part of the Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. The center houses numerous programs and sits at the north end of campus. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful new building at UW. The Berry family has been generous to the university through their charitable vehicle, the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation. In addition to the facility — which they funded with a $10 million gift, matched by $10 million from the state of Wyoming — and the BI, they’ve helped endow a professorship in ornithology, supported multiple museums and funded a public outreach unit.
By accident or design, the Berry building is down the road from the School of Energy Resources, and their proximity highlights a contrast in treatment. From the donor wall in the SER foyer, it is clear the university worked hard to identify donors to nurture the state’s dominant industry. The SER’s oversight board, composed predominantly of people from industry and the Legislature, ensures the school is largely insulated from normal university processes, including faculty governance (i.e., faculty input about a program’s academic direction).
The juxtaposition of the two facilities conveys a clear message. Yes, UW works closely with energy and will help with its research and training needs. But scientific understanding of the biological diversity of the region must generate its own private support before the university will invest time or resources.
The BI is small, with a staff of six. Its role is to engage with the public, particularly K-12 students and teachers. It supports the publication of books and brochures that explain scientific results and concepts in ecology. Recently it helped publish a fine book by Dr. Matt Kauffman and colleagues about the migration routes of ungulates, Wild Migrations – Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates. It’s the third major publication in the BI book series.
Universities are often criticized as ivory towers. The BI provides a valuable counterpoint to that criticism by bringing university researchers into conversation with the public, sharing educational resources with teachers and providing opportunities for citizen participation in research. Between 2012 and 2017, the BI undertook 190 outreach events engaging over 14,000 people and conducted 17 citizen science projects with over 1,000 people in field data collection and analysis. It conducted 17 events for K-6 students and 71 events for middle- and high school students. In all it engaged more than 5,000 K-12 students. On the face of it, that should meet one of the UW’s strategic goals, that of “impacting communities.”
The UW strategic plan commits the university to addressing complex environmental problems — a commitment that BI is uniquely positioned to fulfill.
Some trustees appeared to understand that the BI closure would hurt the university’s public reputation. Dr. David Fall thought that closing the institute was unwise, and stated his opposition during the November meeting. Trustee Kermit Brown played devil’s advocate to advocate in arguing why the BI should remain open. Laura Schmid-Pizzato, the board’s newest member, also expressed reservations. One trustee told me privately they had difficulty understanding the draft plan that recommended closure. Such public dissent is unusual. Even when thinking aloud on difficult issues, trustees like to project unanimity, particularly when Old Main has proposed a course of action.
A Broken Engagement?
When the administration made its closure announcement in July, people were stumped. The university’s strategic plan places heavy emphasis on public engagement. This is what the BI does, and does well.
I asked Dr. Synakowski, who wrote the report advocating closure, whether the BI’s staff did what was expected of them and did a good job. His answer was yes. The BI is popular with Wyoming school children and teachers.
The announcement was made in mid-summer in a press release with the header “UW pivots on biodiversity science.” A casual reader might infer UW intended to deepen its involvement with biodiversity. You had to read the entirety to learn the BI would be shuttered in December 2018.
As a fan of George Orwell I had mixed my feelings about the press release. I was disappointed by the closure decision, in part because it came in mid-summer, when most 9-month employees are distracted by summer research or writing, and because faculty senate had not been consulted. This violated a recently updated university regulation. But as a connoisseur of pre-1989 public statements from Eastern Europe, I couldn’t help but admire the masterful writing. It was a subtly misleading, evasive statement of intent. Even its title, with the phrase “transition plan,” suggested a commitment to biodiversity engagement while proposing its opposite.
Shortly after the closure decision became public, a faculty colleague and I met with President Laurie Nichols. She said the BI was running out of money and there was little prospect of finding another donor. We found this puzzling. The BI existed for 7 years and had become an important interface between UW and the public. She referred to the donor’s reputation for being “difficult” and said he had refused to subsidize the BI any longer. The UW Foundation beat the bushes for years to find other donors, Nichols said, but came up empty-handed. We were told the Berry family was interested only in grant-funded science, and was disinterested in educating school kids or the public about conservation. That also struck us as odd. The Science Kids program of northern Wyoming is made possible in part by the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation.
The mood on campus
The public status of the BI and its achievements became clear in October when the university administration held a public meeting about the BI’s fate. I anticipated poor attendance, given the current dour mood on campus. I was surprised to find a standing-room-only crowd. In addition to staff and faculty, there were members of the public, graduate students, and undergraduates. After a 40-minute presentation of the plan, the meeting was opened for questions. It became clear that almost everyone present, except President Nichols and Vice President for Research Synakowski, thought the decision unwise. Many on campus care about the integrity of Wyoming’s ecosystems, particularly its wildlife and habitat. Access to resources for walking, hunting and skiing, keep us in the state. The plan seemed to announce that biodiversity was fine, but only insofar as it generated external grants and plenty of overhead to support the university.
The BI decision is not the only cause for consternation on campus. The results of a survey assessing the morale and opinions of UW employees was released recently, along with a detailed report.
Only 30 percent of UW employees thought upper administration was listening to them. A mere 11 percent of tenured faculty agreed with the statement that their units were adequately staffed to meet strategic goals. Confidence by employees, including administrators, in the institution’s senior leadership was a dismal 31 percent. Only 19 percent of tenured faculty thought senior leadership cared about the wellbeing of staff and faculty.
The BI’s closure and the likelihood that some personnel will be let go brings those perceptions into focus.
It is typical for university faculty nationwide to take a jaundiced view of upper administration. This is the era of the All-Administrative University where upper administration swells as staff and faculty ranks shrink. Yet, the numbers above still compare poorly with those of comparator institutions, and to a 2018 survey of faculty by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
A series of recent decisions at UW has hurt morale. These included how well past presidents Sternberg and McGinity performed their jobs, a perception that trustees overreach their authority, a sweep of departmental accounts, reduction in faculty and staff numbers through separation/retirement incentives, increased workload, a staff salary matrix that is 10 years out of date and a new but glitchy computer system that cost $30 million.
Some upper administrators discount low morale and attribute it to ‘change fatigue’. To employees, however, ‘SNAFU fatigue’ may be more accurate.
Making it right
As a result of pushback, President Nichols has postponed closure and announced the fate of the BI will be decided at the January 2019 meeting of the board of trustees. While the upper administration is in a tough spot, it also has an opportunity. It is rare indeed at UW to see a decision reversed as a result of public pressure. When reversals happen, such as the decision to let President Sternberg go, it is rarer still to hear the words: “We made a mistake. We’ve taken input, and here’s a better plan.”
A better plan for the BI was proposed at the November 2018 trustees meeting. Namely that it’s fine for the university to regard biodiversity primarily as a focus for basic research, provided we don’t disband a visible and loyal unit only to set up a task force to see how a new BI could do it better. In a remarkable display of institutional deafness, the administration proposed such a new smaller BI called the Berry Biodiversity Center of Excellence. Only Orwell, on a good day, could conceive of that.
Keeping the BI for the next two years is cheap — less than $1 million. Trustees have the money in university reserve accounts. Maintaining the institute would earn the administration credibility. And another two years should give the UW Foundation time to do what it should have done over the past 7 years: aggressively seek other donors. It would also minimize the dangerous perception that, once the UWF separates donors from their gifts, it will ignore their wishes. We saw what happened in the Amy Davis Y Cross affair. We don’t need a replay.
Regardless of the path forward, I suggest one thing the administration might do: Apologize to Bob and Carol Berry. The announcement of closing the BI was made without consulting the Berry family. By all accounts they were hurt, astonished and bewildered by the decision. They likely won’t have anything to do with UW in the future. Nevertheless they merit the courtesy of an apology.
In January 2019 we will learn whether the university’s senior leadership has listened, gotten the message, and reversed course. Earlier this year the administration released the slogan for its new fundraising campaign: “The world needs more cowboys.” Some of us think the world may be in greater need of wisdom, compassion and common sense — although these attributes may be possessed by some cowboys.
As to what we need in UW’s administration right now — well that, gentle reader, I leave to you to figure out.