Prexy's Pasture at the University of Wyoming.
Prexy’s Pasture at the University of Wyoming. UW professor Nicole Ballenger calls UW one of the “biggest little universities in the world.” (University of Wyoming)
Prexy’s Pasture at the University of Wyoming. UW professor Nicole Ballenger calls UW one of the “biggest little universities in the world.” (University of Wyoming)

The Biggest Little University in the World

Guest Column by Nicole Ballenger
– December 19, 2013

Nicole Ballenger
Nicole Ballenger is a professor of agricultural economics at University of Wyoming. She served as UW’s associate provost for academic personnel from July 2005-November 2013.

When I was growing up in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe my mom would take us kids over to Reno, Nevada to get our school clothes. What I remember best about those trips along the winding Truckee River is the arched sign over the entrance to downtown that reads “The Biggest Little City in the World.” These days, whenever I think about UW the phrase “biggest little university in the world” pops into my head.

There’s no doubt – as recent events showed – that whereas UW is a small university the sense of community here is giant. But I think the moniker fits well in other respects. It captures the tensions that shape a little university that must — by virtue of being the state’s only university, a U.S. land-grant university, and also a Carnegie research university with world-class aspirations — be so many things to so many people. A better grasp of these tensions might help us understand why it sometimes feels as though there’s an endless tug o’ war to define UW’s future.

UW really is a small university. Among the land-grant universities established in every state in the nation by the 1862 Morrill Act, you can count on one hand the number with as small a student body as UW’s. Many land grants have at least twice as many students. UW is also among the smallest of the 74 public universities designated by the Carnegie Foundation as “Research Universities, High Research Activity.” UW isn’t much bigger—student body wise—than some of the most highly selective private universities in the country, such as Yale.

But little UW has a really big mission. Among the state land-grants, UW is one of a minority that also carries the banner of a state “flagship” university. Other than UW, by my count (and others may count differently), only University of Maine, University of Vermont, and University of Alaska, are their states’ one and only research university. UW doesn’t share its job with any other Wyoming university, simply because there isn’t one.

Here are a few of the tensions that come with being one of the “biggest little universities in the world”:

As a little university with a big mission UW must balance the mandate to be highly relevant to the state with the need to build a reputation that extends well beyond the state borders and, in fact, into the global arena. There’s tension here, in that world-class scholarly reputations aren’t likely to be built only on state-based research. But I’d argue that the state’s most pressing problems can’t be solved without applying world-class expertise.  And also that the top-notch faculty UW attracts from top-ranked graduate schools find Wyoming’s state-based problems of interest and also relevant to problems faced by communities and industries around the globe. Note, for example, the students and faculty who come from the Middle East to study and apply energy sciences and engineering, or those who come from developing countries to study and apply the agricultural and hydrological sciences.

As a little university with a big mission UW must balance the need to provide access to an almost full panoply of undergraduate majors with the necessary constraint of not trying to offer everything. There’s tension here, but I’d argue that it’s possible to give Wyoming undergraduates exposure to most everything a university experience can offer (would we really want them to go to Colorado, Montana, Nebraska or Utah instead?), while focusing graduate education and research on a smaller set of trans-disciplinary or trans-college “areas of distinction” that require greater depth of expertise. Research depth in strategic areas is essential to winning external grant funding (funders look for depth as a signal of success), and to attracting high performing graduate students. External funding and graduate training further build the research mission and also enhance opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research.  This learning-by-doing is the best possible way to teach and attract students to science and technology. As UW moves forward it needs to take a close look at how these strategic areas—identified in the last three university plans– are taking shape and what refinements if any are called for to continue to strike the best balance between breadth and depth.

As a little university with a big mission UW must nurture the practical and professional fields of study, the sciences, and the arts and humanities; yes, all of them. Wyoming may have the smallest state population, but its people aren’t limited in their interests or ambitions.  UW needs to be a place where a student with a nurse’s calling can become a nurse, an entrepreneur’s ambition can become a business person, a teacher’s natural generosity can become a teacher, a scientist’s curiosity can become a scientist, an engineer’s practical nature can become a licensed professional engineer, or an artist’s soul can become an artist.

As the creative communities that grow up around knowledge-based industries demonstrate (witness Houston, Texas), even our “nerdiest” mathematicians, economists, scientists, accountants and engineers relish cultural and artistic experiences. One of UW’s best recruiting devices is its almost nightly repertoire of concerts, plays, dances, exhibits, and readings. Furthermore, writers, painters, geologists, petroleum engineers, ecologists, range and wildlife biologists, and even agricultural economists (like me) — all members of our UW community — share a love of and attraction to the magnificent landscape that is UW’s home.

I am a firm believer that University of Wyoming can and does straddle the multiple dimensions of its big mission exceptionally well. But the truth is that UW is small and, because it’s small, there will never be enough of any one dimension of the mission to satisfy its constituents. This may explain why passions run so high – sometimes seemingly to the point of anger – among the university’s many constituents (legislators, industry and community leaders, donors, alumni, faculty in different disciplines, and students).

The tensions will persist. The creative writers will always want a bigger creative writing program, just as the energy CEOs will always want a bigger energy sciences and technology program—and rightly so in both cases. It would be bad news for UW if they didn’t. The struggle for our limited resources defines our differences but also our mutual passion for our “biggest little university in the world.”

— Nicole Ballenger is a professor of agricultural economics at University of Wyoming.  She served as UW’s associate provost for academic personnel from July 2005-November 2013.  Before joining UW she was an economist and administrator at USDA, director of a study of the land-grant colleges of agriculture at the National Research Council, and a senior economist at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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  1. Nicely balanced article, Nicole. The tensions you mention, both internally at UW among departments and faculty, and externally among mineral extractive industries and their opponents have always existed. UW’s size – small, as say – is an asset in addressing problems.

  2. Nicole,

    This is truly the best description and rationale for the struggles we’ve faced in the past year that I have read. Thank you, as always, for clearly stating your point of view.