Elizabeth Storm Williams, DVM PhD DipECVP. Nov 15 1951 – Dec 29, 2004. (Donal O’Toole)

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 distinguished professional careers and have made an 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; 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.  

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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.

Wyoming tributes to wildlife veterinarians Dr. Beth Williams and Dr. Tom Thorne. Clockwise, from top left: a plaque in their memory at Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, University of Wyoming; Dr. Williams’ biography in Sybille; wildlife habitat management area named in their memory; wildlife research laboratory at WSVL, established by Williams’ family; Tom Thorne-Beth Williams’ wildlife research center of Wyoming Game and Fish Department. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department, courtesy of Dr. Mary Wood)

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.

Laramie mural celebrating Wyoming wildlife and the lives of Dr. Beth Williams and her husband Dr. Tom Thorne. Both were wildlife veterinarians. (Donal O’Toole)

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.

Donal O'Toole

Dr. O’Toole is a professor and veterinary pathologist in the Department of Veterinary Science and a shard of "human capital" at the University of Wyoming. He served as chairman of faculty senate for...

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  1. Beth was my mentor and her husband my 1st real boss. They were wonderful people in addition to being extraordinary professionals. When they died Wyoming and its wildlife lost more than words can describe. Neither my life or the state has ever been the same.

    I’m sorry to hear about all the issues at UW (and indeed elsewhere in the state). As much as I hated to leave Wyoming, it sounds like I may have done so at the right time.

  2. Beth Williams was my favorite professor when I was working on my M.S. She was tough, but her class was fascinating. She was also the veterinarian in charge of my research cow herd. I was stunned when I heard about the car wreck. UW was never able to replace her, even in a marginal way. And now, if the board proceeds, the University will tank, and become the butt of many more jokes about the backwardness of Wyoming.

  3. Thank you Donal! Beth was an inspirational mentor, passionate conservationist, and caring friend. You really captured her essence in the article.
    I’m sorry UW is going through these changes. Ironically, the UW system where I work (Wisconsin) is seeing similar changes to tenure as well.
    Keep fighting the good fight, buddy!

  4. Dr. Beth Williams and her husband Dr. Tom Thorne were professionals in the finest sense of the word and great citizens of our state. They both gave so much to Wyoming and its wildlife in their professional careers; Beth as a professor at the university and as head of the state veterinary lab and Tom as the chief veterinarian for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. As Professor O’Toole notes, Beth identified and named chronic wasting disease while still a graduate student. Tom, along with others in the WGFD, was instrumental in saving the last black-footed ferrets on the planet and then breeding them to repopulate the west. UW was fortunate to have a professor of the caliber of Dr. Williams and Wyoming was fortunate to have both of them in public service.

  5. Thank you Donal. Beth Williams died the year I joined UW. I so wish I had been able to get to know her, as it was so clear from just a couple of brief interactions what a fine person she was as well as revered professor whose discoveries so mattered to the state. As an administrator (hopefully one you don’t consider too failed) starting the year after Beth died, it quickly became clear to me that UW was and thankfully still is, chock full of “professors” in the truest sense. They are not always of course of Beth’s caliber but they embody the same love of scholarship, and ability to use knowledge of their discipline to solve real problems to make lives better, They thrive on sharing their disciplinary expertise with their students, in the lab and the classroom, and especially on seeing new discoveries that advance disciplinary knowledge by those students. There is nothing more satisfying to a true professor than hearing from a student that they made a difference in a life or career. I don’t think the professor of practice has to be detrimental to scholarship at UW, but it is painful to know how little the impact of professors (as we know them) is understood, appreciated, or celebrated. As Beth made abundantly clear, professors are every bit as relevant to the real world as so-called practitioners.

  6. Recent postings about the direction of the University of Wyoming leave me sad that the school with which I was associated for 18 years is starting to resemble a California mudslide, and happy that I don’t have to defend the decisions of the Board of Trustees and administration. I worked closely with Donal O’Toole, Steve Ropp, and Pete Jorgensen, all of whom I respect for their probity and integrity. I hope the residents of Wyoming will heed their concerns.

  7. There is certainly a place in any university for highly accomplished professionals to serve as guest lecturers for a semester or a year or possibly longer. To label these distinguished guests as “professors” is ludicrous. When I received my B A in 1995 from UW, I knew I had earned the distinction under the guidance and tutelage of qualified and respected scholars. If this is the beginning of the “dumbing down” of our University, it is certainly a sad period in the history of this remarkable institution.

    This insult to academia, along with other recent faux pas by the members of the board, lead one to the conclusion that it is time to start questioning the qualifications of the appointed members.

  8. Donal O’Toole is not afraid to say what needs to be said – – and he says it with great passion. The title of professor is being rapidly debased at the University of Wyoming and will soon mean nothing. What a great loss to the State of Wyoming and future generations of students.

  9. The trustees include very admirable voices in Wyoming of public service, but several hate tenure and they want to be able to censure voices of dissent. Yet they would scream loud and clear if their voices were muted. They don’t understand that quality education happens when all points of view are heard and debated. Their mission of trusteeship is not to toady to the legislature and the power houses in Wyoming. It is too promote a quality institution of scholarship.

    1. Excellent encapsulation of one of Wyoming’s obstacles to ever attracting an economic future despite continuous studies like “ENDOW”.
      The state must first acknowledge constant legislative bias to exclusively support currently dominant energy industry – examples abound in last 10 year ‘s UW Trustee’s actions. Trustees serve at pleasure of Governor.