Buchanan on Carbon Sink: UW didn’t kowtow to powerful interests

— An op-ed by Tom Buchanan, University of Wyoming president

Critics of the removal of the “Carbon Sink, What Goes Around Comes Around” installation at the University of Wyoming have fashioned a narrative in which the university kowtowed to powerful interests, restricted free speech and conspired to mislead the public.

The facts do not support this narrative.

In truth, there was nothing nefarious about the removal of the installation. While the university is sensitive to the concerns of the many constituents the university serves, the notion that UW cowers before donors and politicians is simply not true. The university has been and continues to be a place where the free exchange of ideas, including those that are unpopular, is encouraged.

There is no question that media reports about the “Carbon Sink” installation in the summer of 2011 stirred criticism of the university. Some elected officials and industry representatives were unhappy to see the installation on campus, and they let the university know how they felt. While critics of the installation suggested that private contributions and legislative appropriations to the university might suffer, no one demanded that the installation be removed.

At the time of the criticisms, I stated that installation of campus art is not an endorsement of the artist’s message or an endorsement of what viewers might interpret, nor is the university in the business of interpreting art for others. Sculptor Chris Drury completed his work, and it stayed in place for close to one year, during which the university enjoyed one of its best-ever periods of private fundraising.

In April, months after the initial furor had subsided, and after the legislative session had ended, I asked the director of the university Art Museum to consider removing the “Carbon Sink” installation at the same time that a number of other outdoor installation pieces were being considered for removal. All were part of “Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational,” a temporary exhibition of public outdoor art.

Let me be clear. No one contacted me or pressured me to remove the “Carbon Sink” installation. My motivation in requesting the removal was simply that all of the temporary installations had already provoked whatever artistic statements or thoughts they were intended to make, and it was time to move on.

After the “Carbon Sink” installation was removed, several individuals inquired about the removal, recalling the early criticism of the installation. These conspiracy theorists created a narrative from selectively chosen pieces of information.

One of the positive outcomes of this controversy is that the university has a stronger relationship with northeast Wyoming and Powder River Basin coal country. The negative reactions to the installation have turned into productive discussions about how the university can better serve the educational needs of that fast-growing part of the state. I am delighted to see this progress: Increasing the university’s presence statewide, particularly through community colleges, has been one of my top priorities.

The university works hard to develop and maintain a wide array of programs to sustain Wyoming’s economy and way of life, including programs of excellence in agriculture, natural resources, health sciences, ecology, computational sciences, the arts and humanities, and energy. The university is deeply committed to extending instruction, research and service to all corners of the state and to all economic and social sectors.

The university also remains committed to free expression and to serving as a neutral marketplace for the exchange of ideas. The university’s students, faculty and staff challenge, provoke and stir discussion and debate, sometimes in eyebrow-raising fashion. Pay a visit to campus, and you will see a robust, diverse mixture of art installations, concerts, plays, lectures, visiting speakers, and student and faculty activities. There is no evidence that the university is censoring anything or is in anyone’s back pocket. In fact, it is just the opposite.

— Tom Buchanan is president of the University of Wyoming.

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 Guy Padgett at guy@wyofile.com or Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

For more on the Carbon Sink issue, read these related posts:

Carbon Sink; University of Wyo doesn’t have to bend to energy politics,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer

Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer

Behind the Carbon Curtain; Art and freedom in Wyoming,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood

Art & Energy: Coal’s reaction to ‘Carbon Sink’ sculpture reveals the power of art — and the essence of education,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

Leave a comment

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *