Once again, the University of Wyoming is in the Bass-O-Matic.
The Bass-O-Matic first appeared in a “Saturday Night Live” skit with Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd portrayed a late-night TV salesperson promoting a fish homogenizer. A noteworthy feature is that he does not interact much with the hapless fish, which he pops into the blender whole. After whizzing it up, the result is a none-too-appetizing glass of khaki glop containing bone, guts, scales, muscle, brain, eyeballs and gills.There is a little something for everyone
I see analogies with the current reorganization of our state’s lone public university.
Let me back up. UW has had five presidents and one interim president since 2013. On arrival or shortly thereafter, each president proclaims a new strategic plan. This necessitates shelving the last plan, and rolling out the replacement with considerable fanfare.
Now might be a good time to erect a plaque on Prexy’s Pasture that states: Thou shalt have no other plan before thee, except Mine. The Prez.
At least the last eight years at UW have been interesting. In 2013, there was the effort by trustees to hire a president without advice from campus. Bob Sternberg’s five months were predictably bizarre. His dismissal brought drama, relief and solemnity but no apology from the board of trustees (BoT): Now is time to move on. Departmental accounts were raided and their contents transferred to coffee cans controlled by the BoT. The expensive new financial-personnel management system continues to provide UW employees with hours of distraction, particularly its research grant module.
In 2016-17, a cut of $42 million resulted in new gaps in faculty and staff ranks. Laurie Nichols’ contract was not renewed and trustees refused to say why. Reporters from WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune did that job for them. The university revamped its regulations, often with the goal of a tighter rein on employees. The Faculty Senate was sidelined and increasingly unheard, a fate little different from that in universities elsewhere. Salaries remained largely flat, while simultaneously upper administration demonstrated its Edifice Complex — a determination to erect new buildings every year, regardless of Wyoming’s economic climate.
In March 2020, COVID-19 entered Wyoming. Faculty members turned on a dime and taught their courses online. Upper management lacked the notochord to say publicly that mandatory vaccination would keep the show on the road.
Through it all, and to this day, the Board of Trustees treats employees as a necessary evil — largely nay-sayers to progress and recurrent administrative pivots. The truth is that the UW workforce has done nothing but adapt over the past eight years. Into this context stepped Ed Seidel in July 2020. He came from the University of Illinois where he had been vice president for economic development and innovation. His professional background was as a physicist. His life partner, Dr. Gabrielle Allen, also a computational astrophysicist, serves as Seidel’s special assistant for strategic initiatives.
Seidel promptly announced his intention to reorganize UW. Wyoming’s economy was in trouble and money from the legislature was tight. His second-in-command, Provost Kevin Carman, was also new. He came from the University of Nevada at Reno where he also served as provost. He explained his interest in moving to UW: he had tried to become president of the university in Reno. His competitor was Nevada’s most recent governor, who became president instead. He decided Carman would return to the faculty trenches and teach. If you supped as an upper administrator and are asked to leave the Big Dog table, the signal is unmistakable. Carman sought greener pastures. He found Laramie. He owns a Bass-O-Matic.
Strategic plans, with or without reorganization, are standard stuff for new presidents. Some sport pharaonic labels. Seidel’s is “The Four Pillars.” The two important “pillars” are entrepreneurship and computer literacy. Faculty members are told they should write more and larger grant proposals. Extramural grants from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy come with overhead dollars. Such moola from heaven and/or the Feds keeps the lights on. It diversifies revenue streams flowing across Prexy’s Pasture into Old Main. Faculty members are also advised to provide research support to corporations and, if all else fails, do contract work for private companies. Just bring in the money.
A risk in any university revamp is that it takes time to develop professional relationships on and off campus for any new upper administrator. The value of such familiarization is that it can alert newcomers to bear traps familiar to the locals. One of Seidel’s boasts is that he worked at some of the finest universities in the world. The implication is that he knows stuff that Wyoming hicks do not. A precursor to putting UW on its left ear was an effort by Seidel to change the university regulations. He wanted to retain promising (“future-looking”) junior faculty. Slacker dudes like yours truly are expensive and — if elderly — likely to be tenured. It makes financial sense to target the tenured ranks. The Faculty Senate recognized the threat, and pushed back. Seidel says dolefully that we misunderstood. Just because someone attempts to undermine tenure does not mean he wants to undermine tenure.
Earlier in October Carman announced the likely changes for UW. Carman enumerates several ideas he abandoned due to feedback or consumer resistance. A reader might infer extensive consultation. The tone is that of a weary but reasonable man presenting rational recommendations. UW’s BoT will consider the proposals at its November meeting.
Then ShowTime for the Bass-O-Matic.
There are a few oddities in Carman’s narrative. One theme is a need to amalgamate smaller administrative units into one big fish-flavored frosty. Big is fashionable among upper administrators in universities — big departments, big buildings, big salaries. One of the proposed mergers was of two units currently in different colleges: Agricultural and Applied Economics (College of Agriculture and Natural Resources), and Economics (College of Business). That merger will now not occur. Here is Carman’s pained explanation:
“While there was considerable support for the proposed consolidation among many UW faculty, a well-organized propaganda campaign successfully created confusion and misunderstanding among a broad range of external stakeholders. It became obvious that the benefits of a consolidation would be more than offset by the angst it would create.”
The background to his statement is this: Although two academic departments may share a word in their titles (“economics”), it does not guarantee that the Bass-O-Matic will generate a blend of peerless “synergies.” Some faculty in Agricultural and Applied Economics were concerned the merger would affect their ability to do extension work with Wyoming citizens. They made the case to remain in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Carman held his ground. Concerned faculty members then took their case to contacts beyond UW. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association became involved. The result was that a member of the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee challenged Seidel about the wisdom of a merger. The idea was dropped.
Carman’s report contains the claim that he consulted extensively with all three senates on campus: those of faculty and staff employees, and that of student government (Associated Students of the University of Wyoming). In the past week, ASUW released a white paper expressing concern about limited consultation and poor communication from Old Main.
Faculty members know exactly how ASUW feels.
An interesting aspect of the proposed reorganization was how employees were consulted. Since employees are unpredictable, flighty creatures, Carman charged multiple committees with a specific mission. He did not ask: Colleagues, is this wise? Instead: Old Main thinks this is an idea of unspeakable wisdom so tell us now how to get it done.
It is standard employer stuff. It co-opts by involving employees in The Process. They are flattered to be involved. They learn something new about their institution. They little suspect that most of the outcomes are predetermined. But — an important but — the employees’ reports provide political cover for upper administration if the concept or its implementation proves controversial. It is hard for employees to then complain: Hey boss, that idea of yours produced a cluster – in truth, a clyster. The ploy of largely hollow consultation with employees comes with a risk. Employees may disagree with the original premise they were given. They might say so, publicly, in their report. They might even say: Boss, there is some pretty basic stuff you don’t seem to know.
In this instance the fake consultation worked, mostly. Mind you, many final reports contained no shortage of hesitations and concerns. They will be like the morning dew. Upper administration can demonstrate a facsimile of buy-in from employees. They can be shared with trustees, legislators, parents, and all three-legged dogs across Wyoming.
The committees delivered their reports to Carman by his Oct. 1 deadline. Most went with the flow. They acquiesced to Old Main’s wishes and provided him with roadmaps. Spokespersons for committees summarized findings at a recent public meeting on campus. It was with relief I heard one demonstrate that UW employees can analyze likely outcomes for themselves. Significantly, the dissent came from people in the humanities. Old Main wanted to consolidate three existing departments into one. They were Art and Art History, Music, and Theatre and Dance. The committee’s response was forthright. It stated that the premise as proposed by Carman was flawed. The end-product would be a mega-unit with 72 full- and part-time faculty. This is bigger than four existing colleges at UW. Additional expensive administrators would be inevitable. The requisite Benjamins to hire them might be hard to find. It threatened accreditation down the road for all three programs. In recent cost-cutting rounds, the units had lost faculty and staff. Additional efficiencies might be their coup de grace. Carman could have saved time, money, electrons and stress by talking to people in these units up front. The kabuki of appearing to consult employees is more important.
There is another important piece to UW’s planned reorganization. While shrinking and compacting parts of UW, along with anticipated layoffs, Seidel wants to establish a School of Computing. It will have 12 faculty members and 8 support staff. Most of the faculty, but probably not all, will be new hires. In Seidel’s words, this will be a world-class team. That is Adminspeak for “Git me someone’s wallet”. The need for three new administrators — one dean, two associate deans — overseeing 12 faculty members sets what I think is a new record for an administrator/faculty ratio at UW. The school would cost $32M over four years. A campus rumor is that the person most likely to be its inaugural dean is the president’s partner. Nobody doubts Dr. Allen’s credentials. Yet transparent competitive searches are traditional for university positions. The optics of nepotism are rarely good.
Reader, it is unwise to essay a gloomy piece without one slender shaft of light. Yet my sense is that most UW employees are more discouraged now than at any time in the last 30 years. This is not the doing of Seidel and Carman alone. It was their misfortune to parachute into Wyoming during a pandemic. In 2018 President Nichols released a survey of campus employees. It found that only 12% of UW’s faculty thought that staffing for their units was adequate. Only 28% believed what they were told by senior leadership. The stats may be worse now. President Seidel continues to act as though nothing is amiss. He chirps happily about UW’s unique can-do spirit. It is a profound disconnect. Ed may be certain that employees will handle whatever he throws our way. I am not. So no, dearest reader, no sunshine for you. I defer to Keb’ Mo’ and fellow artists, who will articulate the mood on campus.