University of Wyoming students vaccinate cattle at the Y Cross. The 60,000-acre ranch straddles the Albany-Laramie county line near the University of Wyoming. The ranch, which was gifted to UW and Colorado State University, was sold this summer. (courtesy Donal O'Toole)

Guest column by Donal O’Toole

“Trust is never taken. Only you can give it away. And you did. In biblical terms, you sold it for a mess of pottage.” — former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, commenting on UW and CSU sale of Y Cross Ranch

Jim Geringer said it best. The recent sale of the Y Cross ranch by foundations of the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University reveals current priorities at both institutions.

The 60,000-acre ranch east of Laramie was donated in 1997 by the late Ms. Amy Davis. Her goals, according to CSU language, were that her family ranch be “dedicated to educating students and developing skills required to efficiently and profitably manage Western ranches; research efficient methods of resource use and allocation, and develop management strategies for integrated resource use, as well as to develop holistic approaches to management of domestic and wild animal enterprises, plant and other resources.” Her goals were more ambitious than teaching aspiring ranch managers how to dig post holes, although the latter view is the one spun by the universities.

The foundations accepted the ranch and its seed-stock cattle, horses, equipment and working capital, but on one condition: that they could not sell it until after 14 years of attempting to meet her intended use. This loophole allowed a sale only if UW and CSU faculty did not make good teaching and research use of the property. And so it came to pass — with a little help from the foundations and both universities.

The UW and CSU foundations accepted the Y Cross ranch as a major donation, including one condition: that they could not sell it until after 14 years of attempting to meet the donor’s intended use. (courtesy Donal O’Toole)

The existence of the ranch was never promoted to faculty. Many never knew of its location or, if they did, how to request access. Typically, when universities acquire a new teaching or research facility, a website is established to encourage its use. Faculty are sent emails and flyers, to promote it so that teachers know what’s available.

That did not happen with the Y Cross. This suggests that the intention from the get go was to sit on the ranch for the requisite 14 years, then sell it. Unfortunately for the foundations, the donor, Ms. Davis, lived a long life. Once she realized the universities would not promote the ranch to their faculty, she tried several maneuvers to hold the foundations to her original agreement and intent. In the end she brought a legal suit against the foundations. Her case was dismissed last year by the Wyoming Supreme Court on the grounds that she had no standing to enforce her intent — specified in the agreement — about how her gift should be used.

The late Ms. Davis had made two mistakes in making her generous gift. First, she agreed the ranch could be sold after 14 years. The discretion for a sale was mostly left with the foundations and universities. Second, she trusted the foundations to abide by her primary goals, as specified in the agreement — a document which, by the way, the universities are not sharing with the public.

The foundations were secretive throughout the period of university ownership. Profit-and-loss statements of the ranch were not released to faculty, in spite of repeated requests. An effort to get CSU faculty onto the property to see the land was grudgingly agreed to, but only for a day, and under specific conditions. The one that made me smile was an injunction to close all gates and never spook the cattle — as a veterinarian, I am now a wiser man.

True to form, even the amount of the recent sale is undisclosed, although it is estimated at more than $20 million. The buyer’s name was secret.

One of the few pluses of the recent sale is that it prompted Gov. Geringer’s comment on a recent article in the Wyoming Business Report. That in turn triggered — for the first time — a public statement by the chairman of UW Foundation’s investment committee, Frank Mendicino.

In a piece that combines indignation with what may be a basic misunderstanding about the gift agreement, Mendicino laid out UW Foundation’s reasons for the sale. At the heart of his argument is a claim that revenue generated from the ranch was supposed to support all educational activities on the ranch. It is not possible to assess that claim, since the text of donation agreement was never released, and the ranch’s annual income is not publicly available. But a ranch — even a 60,000 acre ranch with 800 pairs — is unlikely to generate gobs of money each year. My impression was the donor’s goal was for the ranch to — at a minimum — break even. It did, even according to Mendicino. It also generated scholarship money and support for student interns on the ranch. But any research and academic programs done on the ranch would have to be funded independently. The resource was there, just like a confocal microscope: if researchers and teachers wish to use it, they would need to come up with the money to do so, typically from grants. Wyoming cows are generous, but it is not their job to be a granting agency.

Mendicino makes a second, and telling, argument that underscores current priorities of the UW Foundation. Like any ranch, its value is its land. And that, from the UW Foundation’s standpoint, was a wasted asset. From the standpoint of a money manager, it is better to sell land lock, stock and barrel, get the cash and roll it into an investment vehicle.

As of June 2014, UW Foundation’s endowment was worth $410.8 million, with $50 million to $55 million in gifts coming in each year. What Mendicino did not mention is that bonuses at the foundation, including that of chief executive officer Ben Blalock, are paid from proceeds out of the endowment. In 2014, in addition to his $120,000 salary, Blalock received an additional annual income of approximately $500,000 from the endowment. This number fluctuates, depending on how much money he — but, more correctly, the large team — brings in each year. It would be interesting to know whether Blalock disclosed to Amy Davis he was the beneficiary of an incentive scheme when the foundations insisted that a provision be added for selling the ranch after 14 years if it did not meet expectations as a teaching tool. Bringing home $10 million to the foundation gets Blalock a lot closer to maximizing his annual bonus.

All in all, the Y Cross ranch experience is a sad and instructive tale of how university foundations operate. The UW Foundation increasingly drives priorities at the university on behalf of corporations and wealthy donors, which explains in part the recent lurch toward servicing the energy industry. How much of university foundations’ endowment income goes to money managers versus students was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed. UW Foundation’s increasing heft at Old Main, and its culture of secrecy, is part of a wider problem.  

The next chapter now unfolds: will UW and CSU use the money from sale of the ranch in accordance with the donation agreement? We may never know. That document remains off limits.(WyoFile obtained the document and published on Sept. 18). There are people who have a copy of the original gift agreement, and I strongly encourage them to share it with WyoFile and its readership.

— For more on this topic, read UW Foundation intent on cashing-in gift of Y Cross ranch, December 2014.

Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. 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 WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

— Donal O’Toole is a veterinarian who works as a professor at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Veterinary Sciences.

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  1. So, what are the lessons to be ultimately derived from the Y Cross matter?

    The university, and truth?

    I commend WYOFILE, AP, and the Wyoming (blog) business report for covering, some of the the twists and turns in more recent events, over the last 5 years.

    Different people may draw different conclusions on the lessons to be learned, and many have followed.
    Given the long history, here is one lesson: But for the Korean War, the lost of
    Courtenay Davis’s oldest son to that war( he may have followed his dad to Princeton), & the Y Cross ranch could have stayed in a 3rd generation of the Davis family. Honor, Duty, Country, GOD Bless the Davis Family(all of them), Ms Amy Davis gave it her all, to keep the ranch as an U of Wyo(Foundation) asset, It was not to be, but, the longer history of how things unfolded should not be ignored, as it is linked in the story of the Davis Family and Wyoming

    Jim Hagood

  2. Toby, the new buyer, from S E WYO is a real deal cowboy.
    So, the Wyo Foundation set a legal precedent, the Y Cross was sold.
    Maybe it was one of those: time to move on circumstances. If Wyo Ag student(s) want hands on experience, the new owner sent out his gracious(invitation) in matters, come on out to the Y CROSS,
    some real experience @.
    Still, Courtenay Davis was an amazing man, even if the Heritage Center( U.W.) never did an interview of
    him( History if you will).

    Jim Hagood

  3. Courtenay Davis’ oldest son, who graduated from West Point, was killed in combat in the Korean War in 1950. Most people in Wyoming seem to have no clue who the Davis Family was.

    Jim Hagood
    Lakewood, Colorado

  4. I just wanted to add that the big Denver based Law firm, hired by the Wyoming and Colorado University Foundations, had big connections to the Clintons, as its Sr Pard, was helping the Clintons on
    Whitewater( some problem in Ark). Bill Clinton was debarred by the Ark Bar for lying in a court proceeding, but then he has quite the magnificent Foundation.
    Sullivan’s Denver (law) pard was nominated to be a federal judge in Colorado, but his nomination was withdrawn after some deemed him unfit to sit on the Federal Court. So, in Wyoming there is Sullivan nominating judges, and he goes before Mike Golden, and it is decreed the Davis Family has no standing to even bring a law suit. That big corporate law firm set up a Casper Branch, and Sullivan was put in the Casper Branch. Is it any wonder, that some worked(or arranged) it to have the buyer as undisclosed. However, the matter is complex, in a bigger picture of events with factors on conservation easements, those who glory in hostility towards ranchers with their books(RANGES), as they sit as U of WYO law professors, those who write books as professors on taxes in the mineral industry, and to top it off we have RIK, the great pieces on Royalty-in-KIND, and its scams, an area that WF did a great job on covering, except it never was able to figure the amounts, vast sums, Uncle Sammy was defrauded. The U S is a land owner too, as asset management is a critical area of many to be concerned about, not just the political class or the professor class, it goes to the very core of accountability in America. This Y Cross matter is a vital area, to examine further in all its dimensions, the sale is not the last straw, but a member of the Wyo Foundation Board claims he is fed up
    with Ex Governor Geringer going into “pottage”, and his innuendo on broken trust.
    Mr Golden quickly dismissed trust as an aspect on matters, as he ruled on the case, beyond his 70th year, after he had earlier noted the WYO Constitution obligated that he was bound to retire at age 70.
    (yes GOOGLEs)
    Surely, are some exceptions in the matter,(to be found) as he has been appointed by the then Governor Sullivan, in 1988. When some exercise power over others, does power take on its own cadence? Is that a lesson in and of itself to students? or dare any note: American taxpayers

    Jim Hagood

  5. Courtenay Davis had a law degree from Nortwestern University, in Chicago, and moved to Wyoming in 1941. He became a real rancher and not a hobby, Cappuccino rancher, playing cowboy, with a cowboy hat. Some powers that be made Courtenay Davis the unknown man in Wyoming, while they prompted the Sullivans. Davis was the subject of a feature piece in New West Magazine, in 1980, 15 years before he passed away.

    Not many in Wyoming (if any) even read, or are aware of the subject major piece.(pre digital WWW era) I used to go to the same church as Sullivan in Casper. His Denver based law firm(Casper branch) advanced in Court that the Davis( Family/ Foundation) has no standing in Wyoming(its courts). Of course, if one plays politics one can secure an Ambassadorship to Ireland from the Clinton ADMIN. The political class in Wyo has that thing, they have their uber “standing”, but if they could take it away from the Davis Family, what might that mean for you? The issues go beyond the Y Cross on the high wind swept plans of Southern Wyoming. Who knows, if they buyer is undisclosed, will the name of the ranch be changed, too

    Jim Hagood

    1. I was in the hearing that day and it is my opinion that Mike Sullivan destroyed the life of Amy Davis. I told him he was on the wrong side, but he gave me grin that said I will take any side if the money is right

      Dr. John E Radosevich

  6. This is so typical of politicians and of universities who relate themselves above any type of ethics,,,,,,especially when $$$ is involved.

    I would never give any property to any group…even Nature Conservancy gives land from donor money away hoping that states, cities and such keep it pristine or env friendly.

    It’s like the saying…if you ave a secret tell no one. If you have property you want kept sacred and safe, keep it yourself and then you know it’s safe.

    Shame, shame, shame on the university. If I was a donor…….I would stop.

    Karen Ash

  7. Shameful, Shameful, Shameful!! I have given fairly large endowments to Wyoming institutions through the Wyoming Community Foundation. However, because of what they have done with the Y Cross ranch, both my UW and CSU alma maters and my former faculty employer can kiss good-bye any funds I or my family will ever leave them. I will advise everyone I can the Y Cross reason to do the same.

    Lon D Lewis BS 62 UW, DVM 67, PhD 72 & Prof 74-82 CSU

    1. Having known Lon Lewis for many years and certainly am impresses with his success i also , although it is to late, perhaps he can get some information from the foundations of both schools that are not being published any where that I can find them. I have been an advocate of not selling this ranch for the last three years at least, have visited the ranch several times, and know the present managers. Ben Blalock has hit the mother load at UW. living in a million dollar house and anticipating another big bonus from this sale. Jeff marsh is a disappointment to me.He was at a meeting I held a couple of yeras ago and heard John Morris talk about the value of this ranch. At the same meeting Frank Galey, who has destroyed the Ag college that we all know, was taking note like a freshman in orienting class. Evidently he didn’t re read his notes Black day for the people of this state and the faculty at UW.

      Dr. John E Radosevich

  8. I’m a UW alum, class of 1984. I appreciate the effort the Foundation and College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have gone to to describe how the proceeds of the Y Cross sale will be used (approximately $10 million, generating about $400,000 annually from a permanent endowment for scholarships, research, etc.) but all of that misses the crux of the issue: that’s now what the donor of the property wanted. There is lots of information in the public domain that describes how Amy Davis spent years trying to convince UW and CSU not to sell the property she gave them, including some involvement by local county commissioners that wondered aloud (like I have) why a public, land-grant university would not use the Y Cross (a big ranch, and very close to the Laramie campus) in UW’s mission of educating future range managers & ranchers. The Y Cross was & is a crown-jewel agricultural property.

    This episode will likely have at least two outcomes: (1) I think it’s going to chill relations between UW and the Wyoming farm & ranch community at a time when the industry is very concerned about attracting and retaining younger people to “stay on the ranch”, so to speak, and (2) it undercuts the credibility of UW’s Code of the West ethics initiative. One of the key principles of the Code is that “….some things aren’t for sale…”. The Y Cross experience clearly demonstrates that’s not always the case.

    Jeff Hansen

  9. Good column by Donal O’Toole. Once again, we see that the “trust us” mentality at many Wyoming state and local institutions sows doubt in the public’s mind. Public officials pay lip service to transparency but hide documents on a regular basis. The fight between the Wyoming Lottery and the Casper Star-Tribune over details of a loan the lotto received is just one recent example.

    Closed doors and closed files damage these institutions in the long term.

    I hope someone who can responds to Mr. O’Toole’s request and shares a copy of the mysterious gift agreement.

    Dan Neal

  10. I had the privilege of spending a few days several years ago on the Y Cross, staying with my brother who was a cowhand on that ranch. At that time, Ms. Davis was in the midst of her battle over the future of the ranch, and it was just plain ugly. I ultimately spoke with the CSU President’s Executive Assistant, who admitted he was shocked that State politicians from Wyoming had gotten involved in the entire affair. We wondered alike why such a thing would occur – unless, of course, there was some personal gain involved. I have maintained contact with the former managers of the Y Cross who were unceremoniously dumped on their ear upon the sale of the ranch. Of course, my brother left when he saw the writing on the wall shortly after my visit. This is indeed a sad tale of greed and dirty politics. However, it involves more than a few million dollars in the till of the respective universities. It involves people – not just those who lost their livelihoods but those students who should have had the privilege of working, living, and learning the ranch life. I met and worked alongside one student who was just finishing up his internship. He told me he had gained more from his time on the Y Cross than he had in any classroom on campus. He was formerly a city kid who had fallen in love with the life of a rancher. Sadly, he was among the last to enjoy such an experience. Clearly, money is everything to some.

    Kim Harvey