Big Top Circus Tents. (Brecht Bug/FlickrCC)

“Ei! Ei! What a circus! My Circus McGurkus!

My workers love work! They say, “Work us! Please work us…”

—from “If I Ran the Circus,” by Dr. Seuss

As your (imaginary) new president, the decisions I make in my first months will set the tone for the University of Wyoming in the coming years. As you well know, we find ourselves confronted with a serious fiscal challenge. There is no choice but to substantially reduce the university’s budget. However, we can choose how to absorb this cut. What principles should we use to make the hard decisions we face? The answer to this question will come to define this institution. 

The obvious answer would be to act in a manner consistent with the metaphor that has come to characterize this university and many other public institutions in this nation. We typically, and mistakenly, perceive ourselves as a business, indeed as a corporation. However, we are not a business and I am not a CEO; our purpose is not to return profits to shareholders. Rather, our mission statement speaks of collaborative learning, of an environment that nurtures mutual respect and of personal growth for the entire university community. There is no mention of making money. 

That said, we are obligated to the people of Wyoming to be responsible stewards of those legislative funds that continue to provide the major source of support for this university. This does not mean, however, that we must look to a commercial model and attempt to cram the round peg of a university into the square hole of a business. Consider that some of the most fiscally responsible organizations in our nation are nonprofits. We do not expect churches to make money, nor our public schools, libraries, public hospitals, nor our state’s vital nonprofits such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, CLIMB Wyoming, United Way and Special Olympics. Rather we expect them to pursue their missions of benefiting society while managing their funds carefully on behalf of those who contribute and those who are served.

So I am confronted with a stark choice. Should the financial cuts be driven by the principles of ruthless efficiency? Cutting existing faculty and staff would be a means to rapidly reshape the institution, after all. To this end, I could work with my vice presidents to identify programs that could be eliminated — along with their faculty and staff — in a politically expedient manner, meaning that these cuts would not raise objections among the Board of Trustees or the Legislature. I could, but I will not.

The other choice is to enact a principle of academic integrity and human decency. There are no departments or programs at this university that are disposable with regard to the nature of an institution of higher education. Even if there were, I would resist dumping people into the market at a time in the modern era in which employment opportunities have never been worse. To do so would be cruel and shortsighted. We cannot build a community of scientists, engineers, artists and humanists who will direct their formidable energies and talents to serving the people of Wyoming if those scholars are demoralized by seeing their colleagues terminated and wondering who will be next. The institution will not earn loyalty, deserve trust or promote unity through the callousness of its leaders. 

Moreover, as Wyoming moves into a profoundly uncertain economic future, its university ought to model how the state will find its way — through caring for one another first, and building wealth second. Indeed, I believe that if we attend to the former, we will achieve the latter and do so together. This is our time as a university and as a state to cultivate decency and foster compassion — to unite and conquer.

And so, we will absorb the coming cuts through a combination of furloughs and attrition. As for furloughs, this is a short-term solution but one that will buy us time to make calm, reasoned and ethical decisions in the next fiscal year — because make no mistake, our budget will continue to decline. 

But there is no need to act rashly under duress, which is the formula for the worst sorts of decisions. My initial analysis indicates that a strategy of fair furloughs will go a long way to addressing this year’s budget reduction. By “fair furloughs” I mean a just system of progressive taxation, if you will. While this approach will need refinement, my initial proposal is for those earning less than $50,000 to have no furlough, those making $50,000 to $100,000 to have a one-day furlough, those earning $100,000 to $150,000 to have a two-day furlough, and those making more than $150,000 to absorb a three-day furlough. A true community shares its burdens, apportioning them to those who can bear the most.

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While furloughs are an important tool, they will not be sufficient, which is why we must also factor attrition into our approach, along with incentives as needed. I know well that attrition through retirements and resignations is not a strategic method of downsizing, as some units will be more impaired than others through happenstance. We will need to prioritize future hires, even as we continue to downsize overall, to address these disparities. And once these harms to student education are ameliorated, I will allocate positions to those initiatives that I believe will reorient the university to address my vision of where the institution should concentrate its resources to best serve the people of Wyoming. Programs with unjustifiably low enrollment will be consolidated or eliminated and their faculty given the opportunity to redirect their teaching in support of the combined ventures or new, higher priority areas. 

I am here for the long haul. Cutting positions is a short-term approach to demonstrate to the trustees and Legislature that I can make decisions consistent with the university functioning like an impersonal business. But I will not resort to political expediency, because that approach is inimical to the character of this university. I seek to build an institution where students, staff and faculty are valued, loyal and dedicated to our collective mission. I wish to model a diverse community that puts people above profits, decency above dollars and ethics above expediency. These are the principles that the state of Wyoming will need in the difficult days ahead.

“But that’s just my Side Show. A start. A beginning.

This way to the Big Tent! You’ll find your head spinning.”

—from “If I Ran the Circus,” by Dr. Seuss

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13 Comments

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  1. “ A true community shares its burdens, apportioning them to those who can bear the most.” I wish Jeff, or someone with his vision, WERE in charge of the “circus”. Having lived
    ( previously) in Wyoming for nearly 40 years , it is truly disheartening to see the cuts being considered to the only 4 year university in the state.
    Great writing . Thanks .

  2. When I read that Wyoming legislators refuse to wear masks, I sent the following memo to Governor Gordon:

    Dear Governor Gordon:

    Variants of Covid-19 have been on the march since November. In late December several Covid-19 mutations appeared in the US. These are highly transmissible, much more so than the original. Stringent measures are necessary.

    1. Covid and its variants are contagious long before a virus-shedding individual realizes he or she is infected. Indeed, some “spreaders” remain asymptomatic, i.e., unaware they acquired the virus and are passing it on. Science tells us that wearing a well-fitting mask and practicing social distancing are effective means of limiting the spread.

    2. Brazil was the first country where a city was overwhelmed with a Covid variant with super-spreader capacity. First detected in mid-December 2020, the mutation, P.1, is seventy percent more transmissible than its original. It has reinfected survivors and seems unaffected by to vaccines. In South Africa a similar problem has cropped up.

    3. Mutations have been reported in Colorado, California, and Texas. In January, Teton was the first Wyoming county to report a case that, health officials have determined, was locally transmitted to an adult male. This means there are others we don’t know about, possibly an entire cluster. The Teton mutant is B.1.1.7.

    4. This is the variant that has overwhelmed England. Its Prime Minister recently warned that B.1.1.7 is more deadly than its original, if only because of its rapid spread— B.1.1.7 has been found 70 percent more contagious than the original Covid. The explosion of new cases has crashed England’s public health-care system. Since mid-December, B.1.1.7 and its 17 mutations have driven England’s daily infection and death rates to record highs.

    5. Teton County health officials have pleaded with the public to adhere to social distancing and face covering. Its Covid-19 cases are rapidly increasing, and its health-care system is close to collapse. The Wyoming Department of Health confirms this. The CDC warns this highly transmissible variant will become dominant in the US by March. MORE SPREAD — MORE CASES — MORE DEATHS.

    6. Denmark has experienced a 70 percent increase per week of B.1.1.7 cases since the mutation showed up in that country, although a strict lockdown was in effect and has continued. The country’s scientists sequence all its coronavirus cases. Without sequencing, a Danish official testified, the country would be lulled into “a false sense of confidence” because Covid-19 cases were on the wane.

    7. The US does little gene sequencing of its coronaviruses. The lack of genetic surveillance leaves scientists in the dark. The slight decline of Covid-19 has lulled us into a false sense of security.

    8. That false sense was on display at the opening of Wyoming’s legislative session. WYOFile reports that on January 12, most congressional members defied the mask mandate and appeared without face covering. In a press briefing, Senate President Dan Dockstader and House Speaker Eric Barlow said it was inconvenient to enforce the mask mandate. They had more important things to do.

    9. It is more urgent than ever before to take Covid seriously. This means using properly fitted masks, social distancing, staying home if at all possible, and avoiding crowds. Our legislators have the option to work from home or office via Zoom, but few are doing so. WYOFile ran a photo of six Representatives huddling in a circle, every one of them maskless.

    10. If legislators go on with “business as usual,” before long Wyoming’s capital is likely to be overrun with B.1.1.7 Covid cases.

    Please enact strict measures immediately. Security must turn away anyone, vaccinated or not, who attempts to enter the Capitol or a chamber—or any other state building or office, for that matter—without face covering. What is Security for if not to protect the public from harm?

    Sincerely,

    Edith Cook

     

  3. It take 7,361 employees to run a University with 11,829 actual students. That seems ridiculous. Especially, as more actual learning transitions to online.

    1. Indeed–if all we did at UW was teach students which is a vital function but hardly our sole activity. In addition, there’s outreach education beyond campus (including everything from public lectures, to legal clinics, to extension programs, to Saturday University), there’s consulting (often with Wyoming businesses and industries), there’s athletics (which the people of Wyoming seem to value highly), there’s artistic performance (offered throughout the state), there’s housing, food, and health services for the students (all of which are essential for their education), and there’s research (solving economic, health, environmental, educational, technological, agricultural, and energy problems). I’m sure that my colleagues could add any number of other services to this list. My point is that a university is not merely the continuation of a high school education, but perhaps we’ve done a poor job of making that fully apparent to the people of Wyoming.

  4. I look forward to reading a lot more of Jeffrey’s thoughts. I became a big fan when I read “The Carbon Curtain”.

  5. Wyoming should look outside it’s boarder for solutions. When Utah faced sever economic shortages a few years back the state doubled down on funding and support for their universities. The intellectual capital–new ideas for economic diversity and a slew of well-educated students to bolster the workforce–helped turn their economy around. We could do that here–if Wyomingites truly value education and new ideas.

  6. As always, Dr. Lockwood is a voice of reason and sensibility in an uncertain time. His message and tone deserve serious consideration, discussion and adoption.

    1. Thank you for the link to UW salaries. Some of these are quite high, to be sure. But please note that the website also states:
      Number of employees at University of Wyoming in year 2019 was 7361. Average annual salary was $29,656 and median salary was $8,631. University of Wyoming average salary is 37 percent lower than USA average and median salary is 80 percent lower than USA median.

    2. I would question how many of that +7,000 employees are full time. They only had 721 instructional staff in 2019 so many of these other positions are a combination of full time and part time (I couldn’t’ find a break down). Also – as a state employee myself you can’t just look at salary and say “that person makes too much”, you have to look at what they can make somewhere else. A psychiatrist at the WSH can make between $17,000-28,000 a month! Guess what – it’s still hard to get psychiatrists. You can lower pay, but then you’ll have empty positions or very poor quality, underqualified staff. Also – if you look at at other universities the number of staff to students is pretty average.