There’s little campus uproar over state Sen. Anthony Bouchard’s confrontation with UW students and suggestions he’d defund their professor’s program, though some see it as a threat to academic independence.
UW officials have chosen not to pursue an official complaint with the Wyoming Senate, while the professor whose funding Sen. Bouchard (R, SD-6, Cheyenne) threatened said she is weighing whether to bring one herself.
A week ago the story of a heated discussion between the senator and three students over a presentation on concealed firearm carry was splashed across Wyoming news outlets, including the Laramie Boomerang and UW student newspaper the Branding Iron. But this week, on campus, none of the students approached by WyoFile had read those news reports.
When told the story, students expressed varying views, both about concealed carry on campus and a state lawmaker suggesting he would vote to defund an academic program based on his political beliefs.
“It seems a little petty to be honest with you,” Habtom Tecle, a senior studying psychology, said of Bouchard’s funding threat.
“That’s wrong, it’s so wrong,” said Sophia Segal, a sophomore and international studies major.
The two students, friends from their hometown of Greeley, Colorado, were sitting at a table on the upper level of the Wyoming Union last week. Both said the idea of concealed weapons being carried around campus worried them.
A few tables over, three seniors from Wyoming took a different view.
“When I’m not on campus I concealed carry constantly,” said Sarah Falen, an agriculture student from Cheyenne. She said she did not think she was one of Bouchard’s constituents.
The senator wasn’t entirely out-of-line in his funding threat, she said. “Isn’t that like what they do?” she asked. “Legislators are supposed to look at programs they like and don’t like and decide whether to fund them.”
Bouchard told WyoFile his remarks were, “I vote on funding for the school and I should know what I need to vote against.” He added “and I said that because I feel the teacher is pushing an agenda that doesn’t reflect the values of Wyomingites.”
The students have contended the senator used his legislative position to threaten their professor’s job. Bouchard posted the professor’s name and photo on Facebook, writing she was “proud of her students pushing for more gun control.”
UW’s mission statement includes the call to “nurture an environment that values and manifests diversity, free expression, academic freedom.” Academic freedom is also referenced as one of the UW Board of Trustee’s responsibilities. Trustees should “preserve institutional independence to protect the pursuit of truth, the generation of new knowledge, and intellectual inquiry so that they remain unencumbered by direct government control or special interest,” it reads.
During the last legislative session, Bouchard co-sponsored a bill to allow concealed carry on campus. It passed the House but failed in the Senate.
The flare-up began during a presentation by three freshmen African-American students on the disproportionate threat concealed firearms could carry for their demographic. Someone carrying a gun could be more likely to use it against them because of racial prejudices that cast young African-American men as threatening, they argued.
The students said Bouchard did not listen to their points, which were not about blocking concealed carry but instead promoted the idea of more education for weapons holders. Multiple witnesses of the discussion described Bouchard’s tone as “aggressive” and “intimidating.” At one point, presenters Desmin Lewis and Tyrell Proby said, the senator suggested he should set a bomb off on campus to see how long it would take police to react.
Following the event, the professor, Allison Gernant, was sufficiently shaken up to file a report with campus police. In the report, she said Bouchard had made a comment about setting off “an explosive device” to test police response time. Bouchard told police he was referring to M-80 firecrackers and that he was not speaking seriously, according to the report.
“Give him a little leeway”
Jordan Largent, a business student from Kaycee, sat next to Falen in the Union cafeteria on Thursday. He also supports concealed carry on campus, he said, and did not see undue trouble with Bouchard’s stance, even if the senator wasn’t very composed. Bouchard couldn’t defund a specific program anyways, Largent said.
“It sounds like he got a little bit upset with what their argument was and made a threat he couldn’t follow through on,” he said.
Falen agreed, and added that Wyoming’s citizen legislators aren’t as practiced at watching their words as lawmakers in other states, where the position can be full-time. “Give him a little leeway,” she said. “Our Wyoming politicians aren’t politicians by trade.”
Before being elected senator, Bouchard was a lobbyist for the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. As a lobbyist, Bouchard was known for aggressive tactics. During the 2013 session, he made memes and posted photos of lawmakers he felt weren’t supporting gun rights, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
Today, Bouchard is listed online as a realtor with RE/Max Capitol Properties. In January, Bouchard listed himself as manager of a company, Payment Sales LLC, on the financial disclosure form lawmakers file with the Wyoming Secretary of State. Payment Sales LLC has since been listed as “administratively dissolved” by that agency, for failing to pay an annual business filing fee.
“Pushing a personal agenda”
In the Coe Library last week, two sophomore history majors chatted over their laptops. Mackenzie Sewell, from Cheyenne, and Spencer Clayton from Denver said that while it was hard to judge without witnessing the discussion, it sounded like the senator overstepped his bounds as a legislator.
Sewell said Bouchard was elected to represent the views of his constituents. “He shouldn’t be pushing a personal agenda,” she said.
Seeking out a program he disagreed with so he could shut it down, as Bouchard seemed to suggest, was different than just voting with his conscience, Clayton said. “If he said I’m opposed to your stance that’s one thing,” he said, “but if [he said] I’m going to find your program and vote against it, that’s another.”
When contacted by campus police on April 12, Bouchard told the investigating officer he was “offended” by Gernant filing the police report, and that she was trying to cause trouble. He said he would be “doing some digging on her,” according to the police report. “This state is going in the wrong direction and the values are not being taught at UW,” Bouchard said.
Since news of the confrontation broke, Bouchard has doubled down on the notion of examining University funding. Speaking to the radio station KGAB, he said he would “look into” classes at the university. “Why are we spending money for a teacher to teach this kind of stuff?” he said to the station.
Proby and Lewis told WyoFile their presentation began as a project for a first-year rhetoric course. They were asked to create a public service announcement of something important to them. The students weren’t assigned a topic for the PSA by their professor, they said, and picked the concealed carry issue themselves.
While some students, like Falen, said lawmakers’ roles were to choose funding for programs, others said that logic can’t be applied to academia.
“If it was completely up to the government, to people who make laws, to senators… then so many programs would be cut, from evolution to Christian studies,” said Hannah Howard, a senior and biology major.
Her study partner, Logan Lichtenheld, agreed. A biracial student with caucasian and African-American heritage, Lichtenheld said she felt concealed carry did disproportionately affect her.
“Being a minority right now in this political climate, it would make me feel a little less safe,” she said, citing higher racial tensions and elevated rhetoric since the election of Donald Trump. “People look at you differently sometimes,” she said.
On Bouchard’s Facebook page, some commenters have pushed for a deeper look at UW programming and funding, to question whether it was pushing a liberal agenda. One of the commenters was fellow lawmaker Rep. Lars Lone (R, HD-12, Cheyenne). He suggested UW had violated a provision in the state constitution against “sectarian” instruction.
“I believe we should stop funding education and should only return to funding when they purge themselves of wrongdoing,” he wrote.
“A large majority, or at least a large part of this campus would love to have concealed carry,” said Robert Kemper, the newly-elected student president of the UW College Republicans. However, he said, those opposed to the bill tended to be more vocal than the those in the student body that supported it.
During the Legislature, lobbying by University officials opposed to the bill misrepresented the student body, Kemper said. “Student voices that supported the bill weren’t represented at all,” he said.
That’s par for the course on campus, Kemper said, with “a minority that is loud and outspoken about their liberal beliefs,” and a largely conservative silent majority of Wyoming students who keep their heads down and focus on things apart from politics. Students from far flung and largely conservative towns throughout the state haven’t had to defend their conservatism before, Kemper said. “They know what they believe but they’ve never had to articulate their beliefs.”
This leads to the University being perceived as majority liberal, which Kemper said isn’t correct. The faculty, however, are another matter, he said.
Kemper said he agreed with Bouchard’s intent, if not his execution. It was “probably not [Bouchard’s] proudest moment,” Kemper said. However, “if he’s concerned about what’s going on here that’s his prerogative as a senator,” he said.
“I would not disagree with a Democratic senator saying the same thing to…” Kemper paused… “I’m not sure what department here is conservative.”
Like Bouchard himself, Kemper thinks the incident has been blown out of proportion. “I think [Bouchard] overreacted, I think the media overreacted and the professor overreacted as well,” he said.
Kemper did not think it would hurt Bouchard’s political chances. “It’ll rile up his base more than anything else,” he said.
Chris Boswell, UW’s Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs, said investigations into the incident have been conducted. One was by campus police and the other by the Equal Opportunity Report and Response unit. Campus police found nothing criminal in the incident, Boswell said, and the EORR unit concluded that because Bouchard was not a member of the university community they had no grounds for action.
“The University going forward is going to support the students and the faculty member,” Boswell said. Administration officials will not file an ethics complaint with Senate President Eli Bebout, he said. However, officials have spoken with Gernant about the steps she could take to do so on her own.
Gernant told WyoFile she was still deciding whether to file the complaint.
In her weekly email address to students, UW President Laurie Nichols wrote that she had watched the students’ presentation and was impressed by it. “We had a good discussion about what has occurred to date (including several media reports and contact with legislative leadership), what more may happen, and how best to handle this unfortunate incident,” she wrote.
Jeff Lockwood, a philosophy professor and director of the MFA program in Creative Writing, recently published a book documenting censorship in Wyoming, often by politicians on behalf of the energy industry. UW is often the target of such censorship in the book, called Behind the Carbon Curtain. Lockwood took issue with UW’s lack of an official response. Even if Bouchard was acting alone, he said, it fits a pattern of university officials bowing to efforts at censorship from legislators.
“Ok, so UW has no rule saying that politicians can’t threaten faculty with dismissal or their programs with defunding,” he wrote to WyoFile in an email. “But this is a cowardly retreat into legalism.”
“Sure, he didn’t have the power to make good on his specific threat — but there doesn’t seem to be much question that his message of punishing faculty/students/UW for speaking in ways contrary to a politician’s view is on the table. If not now, then just wait. The likely result is to instill an atmosphere of self-censorship which is insidious.”
Lockwood also took issue with Nichols’ characterization of the event as unfortunate. “Fortune suggests happenstance, luck or chance,” he wrote. “This was an intentional act and the point was to silence a point of view that the senator found contrary to his political stance.”
At the student’s presentation, Bouchard was introduced by a lobbyist present as the senator behind the concealed carry on campus bill. Proby and Lewis said the senator told them he had not planned on being introduced.
In some ways, a complaint from Gernant would carry more weight than one from the University, Boswell said. “A concern being forwarded by the person that was directly involved with the circumstances is to me potentially very powerful and certainly significant and very relevant,” he said.
Robert West, the vice-chairman of the Wyoming Young Democrats, said he too would have liked to see more from the university. The Young Democrats issued a press release condemning Bouchard’s language before the event was publicized by the media.
West said the university is already under pressure from the Legislature via budget constraints. He worries what would happen “if now there’s going to be this huge magnifying glass on this quote, unquote, liberal bias at UW,” he said.
“In an ideal world,” he said, “I think the university has an obligation to protect its students and particularly its most marginalized and underrepresented of its students.”
The university appears to have chosen a more behind-the-scenes response, West said, which he understood given that Wyoming is a largely conservative state with a strong gun culture. Because Bouchard is “very fringe” even within the Republican party, West said, quietly lobbying against his views in the Legislature can be effective.
However, he said, “fringe, kind of alt-right politicians are becoming more and more prevalent … so I don’t know how much longer that kind of behind-the-stage politics is going to work.”
As for the relative silence on campus, West said it was understandable, given the time of year. “There’s like millions of things going on, it’s the end of the semester, it’s finals,” he said. “It’s kind of hard for [students] to focus on it.”