The University of Wyoming will tap more of its sizable endowment to fund initiatives like boosting student success and increasing the university’s research enterprise, UW President Ed Seidel announced last week. The latter goal could help the university achieve the coveted rank of an R1 research institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Despite existing efforts by UW to earn R1 status, the university has dropped in Carnegie’s ranking in the past three years, falling from the 149th-ranked research university down to 180. UW’s science and engineering expenditures declined by about 25% during that period.

The reduced spending has coincided with UW’s endowment growing to surpass most universities in the Mountain West. 

In recent years, UW’s highest-profile donations have resulted in new buildings, like the High Altitude Performance Center and the Rochelle Gateway Center.

To improve the university’s research reputation, Seidel said the use of endowed funds should now “focus more on people and programs going forward, given the great facilities we have in place.”

University of Wyoming student Daniel Wenger, a mechanical engineering and energy information systems student from Vail, Colorado, studies on campus in November 2020. (University of Wyoming)

Under his plan, spending from the current endowment and future donations will focus on supporting faculty and students and “enhancing the economic pillars” of the state — particularly agriculture, energy and tourism.

Still, some warn the university should be strategic in its growth and development, and not simply “chase metrics for metrics’ sake.” 

Ranking slips

The Carnegie Foundation released a draft of its 2021 rankings in December.

In the 2021 reclassification, some of UW’s regional peers achieved the coveted R1 title. Utah State and North Dakota State universities now rank among the 137 universities deemed R1.

Meanwhile, UW fell behind the rankings even as its endowment has mushroomed.

UW’s endowment grew from $411 million to $586 million from 2014-2020, then skyrocketed to $839 million — roughly $67,000 per student.

Utah, Utah State, Montana State and Colorado State universities — all of which have R1 designation from the Carnegie Foundation — average less than a third of that endowment per student.

To get to R1 status, UW would need to increase research funding, including in non-STEM fields.

To better compete with its peers, UW will launch what Seidel called the “university excellence initiative,” a fundraising platform for faculty-centered programs. That includes proposals like nearly doubling the university’s number of endowed chairs — a mark of distinction UW can bestow on incoming or existing UW faculty. Investment returns on those endowments provide additional funds for the corresponding faculty member to support graduate students and other research needs.

“Some of our excellent faculty are raided by other universities, so we need to find ways to make sure that they feel well-cared for here,” Seidel said.

Regarding the student success focus, Seidel said UW’s endowed funds should also provide greater financial support to graduate students and additional programmatic support for undergraduate students. As an example of those efforts, he cited the Saddle Up program, a revised version of student orientation UW plans to launch this year to boost retention.

Even with UW’s high endowment, and its record-breaking fundraising efforts, the university still has room to grow its donor base, Seidel said.

Old Main, primary home to the University of Wyoming’s administrative offices (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

“Typically, a university thinks about its alumni base,” he said. “They’re absolutely essential for this, but we’re thinking beyond that. A lot of people have moved to the state of Wyoming — people that have means and capacity, and they’re very interested in being good citizens in this state.”

UW also needs to be more selective in its fundraising, Seidel said.

“If a donor comes to us with an idea, we want to have that conversation,” he said. “If it aligns with our priorities, we will continue that conversation. If it doesn’t, we will say ‘that’s not where we’re going.’ We have to be very, very strong about that going forward — not just chasing after money because it might be available.”

He added that deans “need to be very active in fundraising and to have targets for what kind of funding they should be trying to bring in for their college going forward.”

‘New era’

UW Foundation President Ben Blalock praised Seidel’s new approach — one he said is overdue and aligns his organization’s mission better with UW’s.

“In over 20 years of being here, the president of the university has never presented the fundraising priorities for the university. … This is a new era because ultimately the greatest success of any fundraising program is when the president of the university and the provost own it,” he said.

Throughout 2021, Blalock and trustees suggested endowed funds could be used more effectively, citing existing donor restrictions as an ongoing challenge.

In July, Blalock said his organization should “reflect the donor wishes, but also have good conversations with donors as to how we feel that maybe a slight change could be done.” 

At the time, he expressed hope at the possibility that the UW Foundation could convince some donors to revise the terms of their donations to support other programs prioritized by the university administrators.

UW Foundation President Ben Blalock speaks about fundraising opportunities at the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 13, 2022. (Dan Bendtsen)

Seidel agreed last week that some endowments provided by donors are “not being as effectively used as they could be” and that, in those cases, UW should work with donors to try revising the parameters of a donation so that those funds can be aligned with UW’s priorities.

After work from the trustees’ regulation committee, the board passed a new regulation in December — one that requires deans, department heads and other university leaders to “periodically review their endowment agreements for any requirements that are too restrictive and work with the UW Foundation to modify” such donor restrictions. The regulation directs such leaders to “use funds available for appropriation prior to using state appropriation dollars.”

University leaders are also emphasizing timely expenditure of endowed funds, and UW’s new regulation will enforce that idea. Now, if an endowed fund is appropriated but an administrator accrues more than two-years worth of a fund without expending it, the fund will be automatically returned to the endowment’s corpus. The regulation also authorized Seidel to spend the appropriated funds himself — or even reduce state appropriations — in circumstances where an administrator “repeatedly accumulates” more than two-years worth of endowed funds without making timely expenditures.

In a statement, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the new guidance will help “assure that private dollars are expended in a timely and appropriate fashion, and it directs how unused dollars are invested to provide maximum benefit to the university.”

Reaching R1 status

To be classified as a “research institution” by the Carnegie Foundation, a university must graduate 20 doctorates a year and have at least $5 million in annual research expenditures.

Carnegie then determines university rankings of “research institutions” using a calculation of the number of doctoral degrees a university awards, its research expenditures and the number of its non-faculty research staff.

To get to R1 status, UW would need to increase research funding, including in non-STEM fields.

While UW currently has about the same per-capita STEM expenditures as the average R1 university, UW currently has 61% less per-capita spending in non-STEM fields as the average R1 university, Provost Kevin Carman noted.

UW Provost Kevin Carman speaks about the university’s research ranking at the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 13, 2022. (Dan Bendtsen)

“We need to consider the possibility of strategically adding additional doctoral programs, particularly in the humanities, and possibly even the social sciences,” Carman said.

UW has had some good news for its R1 ambitions in the past year: In Fall 2021, the university’s doctorate enrollment jumped 18% in a single year after the number of doctoral students had gradually slid down from 728 to 626 in the six years preceding 2020.

Doctoral programs in zoology, physiology and education accounted for much of the new enrollment, Carman said, while noting he’s not sure why there was such a sudden one-year jump. He’s also not sure why there was such a decline leading up to 2020.

“We need to unravel that and develop an understanding so that we can avoid repeating that downward decline,” he said.

Meanwhile, the number of research personnel has jumped 63% in the past two years after that figure saw no growth over the previous decade. Federal research funding at UW has also grown considerably since 2017.

Part of UW’s recent drop in the recent Carnegie rankings appears to be that UW is underreporting its research staff and expenditures, Carman said, based on how internal data compares to Carnegie’s official numbers.

“So we need to understand that and make sure we’re getting full credit for the postdocs and doctoral qualified staff that we have,” he said. “Another thing that we’re not doing in terms of our research expenditures and getting full credit for them is that we’re not reporting the faculty salaries that are related to research. … So we’re leaving credit on the table, if you will.”

Before beginning as UW’s provost in June, Carman previously was the provost at University of Nevada-Reno, where he oversaw that institution’s achievement of R1 status.

“It was remarkable to me what an impact it had on the institution from almost every dimension imaginable — in terms of recruiting students, recruiting outstanding faculty and the congratulations that came in from colleagues at other universities,” he told trustees last week.

Carman said R1 status would increase the prestige of UW diplomas, making alumni more attractive to employers. R1 status would also attract more outside funding to UW.

“And in doing that it also enhances the university’s ability to serve the state and promote economic development by bringing more resources and talented faculty and graduate students and undergraduate students to the university,” Carman said.

Achieving R1 status would require significant additions to UW’s programming, and Carman stressed that UW should not “chase metrics for metrics’ sake” and that the additions of new programs must make sense for Wyoming’s goals.

“We should not launch humanities programs and doctoral programs simply because we need them to get to Carnegie R1,” he said.

Daniel Bendtsen is a freelance journalist living in Green River. He previously spent five years working at the Riverton Ranger and Laramie Boomerang. Originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Bendtsen...

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  1. As a spouse of a graduated PhD from UW, suggested: 1.Teach them to pull others up the ladder with them once they are on the job. ( never saw this from all the graduates I knew. And there were many. 2 Incentivize professors to reach out to communities by way of high school visits In the community and small job-fair-like opportunities. 3 Make housing available that is part of a package for grad students.

  2. One project that could be of significant benefit to both the university and the state would be for the Psychology Dept. to conduct a study of why individuals leave the states work force. Money us usually the focus, but when serious study of the work force is undertaken usually it is much more simple problems that cause individuals to seek employment elsewhere. This is an excellent opportunity for all.