Note from Pete Simpson: What constitutes a proper education? And, what is the government’s role in providing a proper education?

Those two interlinked questions are as old as civilization itself; but, answers change at least every generation and even more often as governmental and/or private needs and interests change. At the public school level, the question today is Common Core. At the level of higher education it is the growing emphasis on “STEM” — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs. Teachers of the humanities and the arts in Wyoming often say they would like to see STEM become STEAM by including the arts — if not also adding the humanities in general (history, philosophy, English, political science, etc.); but, of course, there’s no place for an H in the acronym without it falling apart.

Make no mistake, however, the issue is a serious one with laypeople and academics alike, and it has taken on more focus with the recent establishment of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming.

This month’s forum tangles with the issue specifically at the level of higher education; and, the two spokespersons writing this month are uniquely qualified to address the subject. Nick Murdock is a distinguished practicing attorney in Casper. He received his undergraduate education at Creighton University majoring in mathematics, and his law degree from the University of Wyoming. His many honors include designation as Best Lawyer; but, his most prized accolade is the Wyoming State Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Award. Nick’s interest in the humanities led the UW’s Humanities Research Institute leadership to invite him to serve on its advisory board.

Gerry Meyer’s roots are in New Mexico, but his career has been for the most part in Wyoming where he served UW as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Vice President for Research. He is a preeminent chemist with numerous patents and a long list of scientific publications. He has served as a member of the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council and as a Wyoming State Science Advisor.

Their views diverge, but, I think you’ll agree, they are edifying as well as stimulating. How do you feel the humanities have fared vis-à-vis science in Wyoming? Do you think a proper balance has been struck? Or, are we and our university on the wrong track? Let us know. — PS

by Nick Murdock

Nick Murdock
Nick Murdock

If you saw the title of this opinion and continued reading, you already appreciate the significance of the humanities. Your definition of the humanities — be it no more than “I know it when I see it” — suffices for this discussion.

How each of us came to recognize the humanities as a needed part of a University of Wyoming education might vary. Some of us may have read comments by officials of Fortune 500 companies stating that their organizations desire students with broad backgrounds, favoring liberal-arts majors. Some of us — including a recent UW-honored graduate in chemistry chosen to speak at his college’s graduation — may innately appreciate the worth of the humanities, cautioning the university from becoming no more than a training school seeking to satisfy a checklist of useful vocational skills.

For those suffering the discomforts of life’s sharp edges, the humanities have let us see the greater meaning of a life well-lived, not by eliminating the discomforts but by putting them in a wider view.

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: The Two Worlds and the University of Wyoming

Others have experienced decades of talks with friends who remember and count as an educational privilege and blessing their introduction to the humanities. So let’s be frank. We come to this discussion with a bias — the humanities are important and need to have a significant place at UW.

The university has some history of nurturing the humanities. When, in the not-so-prosperous time of the 1930’s the Arts and Sciences building was constructed, the college’s mission was not couched in constructing a better economy for the state as one might have expected. Instead, it adopted Herbert Spencer’s prescription that it was to prepare its students for complete living. In seeming to want to make the commitment a lasting one, the university saw that Spencer’s statement was placed on the front of the building. Today, despite the elements, Spencer’s words can still clearly be read. Whether the institution still aspires to that ideal is a different matter.

For more than the last decade, ordinary Wyoming people could see what their university valued and planned, and how the university accomplished the tasks it set out for itself, in the UW academic plans. While displaying some jargon, the plans were distinguished most by their clear objectives and frank assessments of what was and was not achieved under the plans. The prior academic plans (2004 and 2009), as well as one proposed as late as 2013, stated the university believed the humanities constituted one of its areas of academic distinction and should be supported and nourished.

The current draft of the proposed academic plan that was to be presented to the trustees earlier this year does identify areas of distinction. Conspicuously absent from that list is the humanities. Nor does the draft include any discussion of greater support for the humanities.  This is to be contrasted with the decision to fund a Humanities Institute with $700,000 with a statewide perspective that had occurred in the year before President Sternberg began his tenure. The current draft aligns with former President Sternberg’s decision to dismantle the humanities efforts that were launched before his arrival.

One can only conclude that the university’s pre-Sternberg commitment to the humanities is in doubt. If the Sternberg administration’s perceived antagonism toward the humanities has been replaced by the present administration’s indifference, the outlook for the humanities at the University of Wyoming may be no better. There seems to be no voice in the UW administration or the Board of Trustees adopting our bias — that the humanities are important and need to have a significant place at UW.

Should there be any concern about future UW support for the humanities? Some would argue that any further support will depend in large measure on how well UW fares with the gambles it takes in accepting the curriculum requirements the various legislatively-mandated task forces adopt in their plans and recommendations. One example is the science task force, established in 2013; the more developed example is the engineering initiative.

In 2011, the governor, apparently with legislative input, formed a task force to study energy and engineering. Not unexpectedly, the task force found the engineering facilities needed improvement and expansion. The task force further advanced a plan calling for a significant expansion of the petroleum engineering program. Expansion of the program would be funded in part by providing research and development of technologies for the gas and petroleum companies that would in turn pay for the engineering college’s research. Certain “niche” engineering areas were found deserving of support, while other engineering areas of study were found wanting, and, consequently, not deserving of increased funding.

The task force wanted the university’s financial commitment to its vision. To use the present business vernacular, the university needed to have “skin in the game.” Therefore, in “ramping up” this new initiative, UW had to come up with more than $9 million. While UW’s budget is a large one, there is little discretionary funding in the budget (as an aside, an ongoing annual $9 million budgetary drawdown would constitute the total combined budget of two of UW’s colleges — e.g., education and law).

So the $9 million needed for the “ramp-up” was to come from grants the Engineering College receives, as well as the funds it receives from companies for doing research in which the companies have an interest. If UW costs are greater than expected or revenues given by companies in consideration for research efforts are insufficient, UW is on the hook to reallocate funds from other programs to pay for the shortfall. UW’s commitment does not end with the “ramp-up” phase.

The task force’s hope is that eventually companies paying for research, together with funds received from grants, would sustain UW’s commitment to the task force’s vision for the engineering college. The calculations of the projected income from paid-for research were done during the heady times when oil prices were above $100 per barrel. As oil prices have now settled at much lower prices and gas prices do not seem likely to increase significantly in the intermediate term, one must wonder whether the projections done a couple years ago are still sound. One cannot tell from public documents.

Before entering into a major exploration or production project an oil company will often test key economic factors against outcomes to get a sense of what the future might hold if things do not go as planned. For example, a lower and upper range of component costs might be used to see how the bottom line is influenced. Similarly, the price at which the product can be sold will be tested.

Recently, such analyses have led companies to wait to complete oil wells, slow down drilling of wells on a prospect, and even abandon some prospects. None of the task force documents in the public domain indicates the task force did the type of sensitivity testing that one would expect from the industry. Instead, from what is available to the public, there would seem to be an assumption that oil prices will always be over $100 per barrel. Or it seems assumed oil prices do not matter to industry-sponsored research — a puzzling proposition for many in an industry that has seen individual companies cut 25 percent to 50 percent in capital spending in the last year.

Some worry that the “task force restructuring” of the university on a piecemeal basis fragments the university’s mission. Without the trustees’ critical analysis of the potential overall impact each task force (currently, the engineering/energy task force and the science task force) has on the university, it is possible there may be an internal reallocation of UW resources without the public understanding how this happened or the risks assumed in going forward with task force recommendations. At present, the trustees simply seem disinclined to assume that responsibility in their governance roles. And few question that some internal reallocation of university resources has already occurred. For example, engineering students not in the niche areas believe they are experiencing the effects of an internal reallocation within the college — their classes are larger and scheduled less often, with possible delayed graduation for some students.

Others may argue conspiratorial motives for all of this. I do not wish to do so. I take at face value that many, if not all, of the people on the various task forces voluntarily contribute their time with no motives to displace the humanities or other programs at UW in favor of the particular program their task force recommends be instituted. My quarrel is solely with the principle of organizing and planning for UW on such a fragmented basis. Being a conscientious member of a task force requires a single-mindedness that does not allow one to be concerned with the rest of the university outside the scope of the particular task force’s purview.  Such structural restraints may drive a task force member to a myopic view of what the university, as a whole, should be doing for its students and its citizens.

The political “buy-in” that comes with a task force blessed by the governor, legislature, university administration, and outside groups may well rob the university of the adaptability to change programs as factors such as costs and the price of oil drive it to consider the bargain it has made. Unraveling this “buy-in” simply may not be politically possible.

In the end, one also must ask if the use of task forces for planning purposes complements the view that the university belongs to the state’s people. If the University of Wyoming belongs to its citizens, the composition of the task forces necessitates scrutiny. Many task force members have past connections to Wyoming, but most no longer live in Wyoming and have not done so for a long time. That they maintain a loyalty to Wyoming and the university we do not believe can be questioned. That their absence from the state makes them less in touch with its citizens’ needs is reasonably expected.

In particular, in a state in which more than 50 percent of the population is comprised of women, the under-representation of women on task forces is stark. Out of what appears to be 15 task force members on the engineering and science task forces, only one woman could apparently be found qualified to serve. Only students fare worse than Wyoming women: no student has ever served on a task force.

It is probably too late for the governor, the university’s Board of Trustees and the UW administration to reflect upon what the use of task forces for planning may do to the broader university mission and its programs — particularly the humanities. But it may not be too late for citizens to reclaim their university.


— Nick Murdock is a practicing attorney in Casper. He received his undergraduate education at Creighton University majoring in mathematics, and his law degree from the University of Wyoming.

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

Listen to Pete Simpson discuss these topics in an interview with Brielle Schaeffer at KHOL 89.1:

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  1. Speaking of the sky:

    THE Blood moon is in the sky, Sept 28th, 2015.(all reflecting on spots, on the Northern Hemisphere)

    As to more earthly matters, this pops up on the BLOG from Jackson HOLE

    “Is it not a miracle that after having been defrauded of their education at the hands of the entrenched in our law schools that American lawyers haven taken on the fraudulent mindset of their educators who have defrauded them?”

    Phil can give a some acronym, as it could be “THAMES”.
    Is he of the “entrenched”, or has he any reply to Spence, as a UW law school Grad? Or, does his ex UW law Dean, Pete, who ran for the U S Congress?

    How can Spence blabber on what mindset people “take on” after law school?
    Isn’t all of life an education. Frankly, Jackson Hole is not the center of the universe. It is amazing how some are cowered into silence. He may opine on some in Jackson Hole, but Teton “mindsets”, and educators there, after Laramie?

    Jim Hagood

  2. Thanks for a very interesting discussion of the University’s current existential crisis. However, I think absent in this debate about the relative merits of funding STEM vs. STEAM is any attention to the social sciences with their unique focus on how societies and their associated institutions function. Since they “fall between the cracks” in the science vs. arts/humanities debate, the social sciences simply don’t get discussed in this debate and thus stand little chance of having their merits recognized in ongoing budgetary discussions. And while it’s hard to put a monetary value on students’ knowledge concerning how the international system functions or how the U.S. Constitution operates, I’m sure there is a price to be paid in the future if our professors are not properly compensated and our students not properly taught.

    Steve Ropp

  3. A thoughtful and insightful piece – thank you.

    But I disagree with the suggestion that the task forces do not have a conspiratorial component. Perhaps not conspiratorial, but Wyoming’s conservative political and business class has discovered an effective way to reorient ‘their’ university using task forces as their Trojan horse. The principal is simple. Sketch out a broad hypothesis. Such as: energy is Wyoming’s future, and therefore one of the university’s main jobs is to facilitate efficient extraction by private companies. Appoint a coterie of energy executives, and industry allies among faculty and the Trustees. Let them propose how it will be done, including supporting appropriations from the legislature. This provides political cover for the legislature – the phase ‘blue ribbon’ is deployed at this point. Have the governor sign off on it. Present it as a fait accompli to the university community. The same approach was followed in the ‘science’ task force. The latter didn’t bother to present draft findings to the university’s senates for discussion and feedback. A reasonable inference: no feedback was desired.

    The truth is that, as with selecting UW presidents, one can make a reasonable guess at outcomes by looking at who to serve on task forces. For now, a humanities education is seen as a harmless if useless part of an undergraduate’s education at UW.

    Donal O’Toole

  4. If quantity has anything to do with the expression of values, then maybe these stats reflect how much STEM has always been UW’s identity, the humanities/social sciences/arts (HSSA), not so much:

    Ph D programs at UW: STEM = 26; Business = 2; Education = 2; Health Sciences = 1; HSSA = 1

    It’s been like this for 45 years I know of.

    Note: I compiled the stats from the UW website under “Academics” then “Degrees.”

    It’s not that HSSA don’t have value; it’s just that that value isn’t broadly understood or appreciated.

    Lew Bagby

  5. STEAM makes a lot more sense! I fully support the humanities as part of a full education. I also think the task force needs restructured to include more diversity, and most of all, representatives who actually reside in the state.

    Michele Irwin

  6. I regularly read articles relating to UW. I do so with a heavier heart these days, because the eldest child of one of my closest friends recently took his own life at UW. A week or two prior, another student took his own life. Two dead students in one month.

    So, what I’d really like to read about is what UW is doing to change this horrible trend. I’ve not heard good things about how UW responded to inquiries regarding these suicides.

    This is merely “hearsay,” but word around town is that UW’s atmosphere is toxic. Toxic for students and faculty.

    Thank you for this article.

    Tammy Christel

  7. I lived in Laramie for years. My heart is in Wyoming, but my body’s here in London, UK. Every now and then I actually see a star in the sky – but only a very bright one. Breaks my heart to be so cut off from the land and sky.

    Just want to support the efforts of all those who support a liberal education at our University.

    As a social historian, I view the Humanities as vital to our development as thinking, reasoning human beings. Last month I attended a lecture at the London School of Economics by Fareed Zakaria who had recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His latest book is “In Defense of a Liberal Education” and it’s great. (He does a show on CNN, is an editor for Time Magazine, writes for the Washington Post, etc)

    We have, as Americans, had the luxury of taking a liberal education for granted. We have had the luxury of having well-trained physicians who were required to do coursework in the liberal arts as well as science before starting medical school.

    Zakaria spoke about the history of the public education systems in Britain and the States – and how in Britain in the 19th century, it was assumed people would stay in the same place, in the same job all their lives so when education became more available, it was skills-based – It was training for that one job.

    America, in the 19th century, already understood that its citizens and new immigrants weren’t likely to stay in one place in the same job for life. They understood that education was about adapting to all situations, developing good thinking and reasoning skills to make a success of it wherever the challenge lay. American education was about critical thinking. American education was based on the liberal arts. That’s why we’re still at the top in innovation.

    We risk losing that edge if we forget what got us here. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)

    He discussed the test scores that place us below Asian students in science and math. We’ve scored in the middle range since those tests began years ago. Nothing has changed in that regard at all. We consistently score in the middle range and we’re consistently at the top in innovation. And he explained that Sweden and Israel also place in the middle in science and math. They have also scored in the middle range since those tests began. Three countries which are consistently at the top in innovation – because we are given an liberal arts education – the gift of critical thinking and communication. We’re also, in learning to discover the world and ourselves, are taught to believe in ourselves. Could our parents and teachers and professors give us anything greater than the self-confidence and finely-honed minds to utilize our potential?

    An example he gave (which is in the book) is the professor of medicine at Yale whose students were doing poorly at diagnostic skills. He took them to an art gallery where they learned to critically observe the paintings. Their diagnostic scores improved dramatically.

    We need thinking skills, flexible thinking skills, critical diagnostic skills in Wyoming and beyond. We need them to thrive and we need them to survive. Without those skills… Trust me, you don’t want to experience a doctor who can’t make a diagnosis because he’s only learned facts and hasn’t learned to question, observe and communicate.

    I’m gratified there are people fighting back in Wyoming against the changes proposed at our University.

    Thank you.

    Susan in London – and please, for me, may I ask anyone who reads this to go outside and give my love to all that sky. God bless Wyoming and keep it wild. Wyoming deserves the best. I’m very far away. Thank you for continuing to value and care for the place we all love so much.

    Susan Wolfe