Last year, 30 faculty members left the University of Wyoming after reaching tenure-track status or higher. Most of these university-identified “strong performers” moved on to other universities, taking with them the intellectual capital and grant money they had acquired at Wyoming.
It marked the highest annual exodus of faculty in more than seven years, and a significant increase from 2006, when just nine faculty left. The university has roughly 600 professors at three different tiers of seniority. When the 30 faculty decided to decamp last year, that amounted to an overall 5 percent turnover.
The reasons for faculty departures are highly individualized. In interviews with WyoFile, faculty reasons for leaving included salary, lack of support for high-level projects, and the potential to have a broader impact outside the state of Wyoming. Competitor institutions lured away some professors through recruitment, while others put themselves on the market on their own initiative.
Faculty turnover is normal for universities, and it is not clear if the higher numbers of departures in 2013 are a symptom of the recent administrative turnover at UW.
“If you look at bigger universities, like Colorado, Stanford, or Berkeley, they lose faculty all the time,” said Steve Jackson, a botanist who resigned from UW in August 2012 to take a position in Arizona. “It is routine for faculty to leave.”
What is clear is that at a relatively small university like UW, the departure of just one standout faculty member can be a significant loss, one that administrators say can take decades to fill.
“A high-performing faculty member is like a small business,” said Bill Gern, vice president for UW’s Office of Research and Economic Development. “They have employees and millions in income going to them. There is real income that is lost.”
From the time of the last major pay raise in 2009 through 2013, 90 professors resigned to seek work at other institutions. They took with them $20 million in research grant money, which university officials say amounts to a $100 million loss to the state economy because of a multiplier effect.
Randy Lewis, a bio-mechanical researcher who specializes in finding new methods of producing spider silk for commercial purposes, had about $500,000 in annual grant money when he left UW in 2011. In his new position he is a faculty researcher at Utah State University’s Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR), a state-funded program which seeks to commercialize research products.
Lewis currently has about $2.5 million in grants, enough to provide partial support to six postdoctoral researchers, nine graduate students, and 26 undergraduates. He has negotiated research agreements with three companies, and is in talks with three more that want to build prototypes.
Anne Sylvester, a molecular biology professor who studied corn and maize, recently left UW for a position at the National Science Foundation. According to research office staff, she took with her several hundred thousand dollars in research grants. A $20 million grant that Sylvester helped secure will continue to fund UW research on Wyoming’s water resources through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR)
Carol Frost, former associate provost and a professor of geology, has also accepted a position at the National Science Foundation (NSF), on a temporary basis. She will head up grant programs as a director of its earth sciences division for two years, overseeing 40 people and a budget of $178 million.
“I would never, ever have looked at a position like this if it hadn’t been for the turnover in the last year, because I really enjoy working to make this place the best it can be,” Frost said.
The turnover she referred to occurred in the Office of Academic Affairs, home to the provost and associate provosts who oversee all faculty on campus. When former President Robert Sternberg asked provost Myron Allen to resign in summer 2013, Frost chose to step down from her position in academic affairs and return to the geology faculty. Associate provosts Nicole Ballenger and Andrew Hansen did the same. (Maggi Murdock, associate provost and Dean of the Outreach School, also stepped down in fall 2013. However, that had been her plan since 2010 and was not motivated by Allen’s dismissal.)
“It was clear the writing was on the wall,” Frost said. “The rest of us just saw if they wanted a new kind of academic affairs, they were going to ask for new people all around. … Sometimes when new leaders come in they feel the way to establish their administration is to bring in their own team, and that is entirely within their prerogative.”
Once Frost returned to the faculty, she applied for a university chancellorship in Montana. After becoming a finalist, she decided not to pursue the job, citing loyalties to UW. Instead she decided to take a two-year appointment at NSF in Washington D.C., after which she could return to Wyoming, where she would prefer to continue her work.
Jackson, a botanist who helped launch UW’s nationally-recognized Program in Ecology, took up a job as a manager of the U.S. Geological Survey Southwest Climate Center at Arizona State University.
“I thought there were other things the university could do building on the work in the 2000s, and I didn’t see the opportunities to do that at UW,” Jackson said. In particular, he didn’t see university support for his goal to better utilize of research science in the management of public lands.
“In a year’s time I went from, ‘They would have to pry Wyoming loose from my dead fingers,’ to ‘Bye everyone,’” Jackson said. “I just wanted to cash in the capital I’d built up in my scientific career and do things in a place where it might matter at a large scale, and that is the whole climate adaptation area that I am in now.”
In each of these cases, one of UW’s nationally recognized faculty members left because they saw the opportunity to do bigger things and have a broader impact — opportunities which they did not see as being immediately available at UW.
An additional reason, according to one professor, was the sense that the university — and the Legislature — had other priorities for research in Laramie, specifically energy research.
“What I saw happening at Wyoming, which dampened my enthusiasm to stay, was I felt a very large overemphasis on energy-related research,” Lewis said. He is a third-generation Wyomingite whose grandparents homesteaded in the Big Horn Basin.
“I just felt like the state or the university wasn’t going to be committing to diversified economic development that was going to benefit where I wanted to go.”
Importance of grant funding
Grant funding made up $123 million of the $544 million budget for UW in 2013 — more than 22 percent.
“It isn’t about the money; it is about the scholarship that it purchases,” Gern said. “That’s what’s important to us and what defines us as a research university. … Lives change because of this money.”
The largest part of grant funding came from $76.6 million in faculty research grants. That money comes through federal grants — out-of-state money that wouldn’t circulate in Wyoming’s economy without the university.
Most of the remaining grants came from student loans and state appropriations of about $9.1 million to the School of Energy Resources and $11.1 million for research directed by the Advanced Conversion Technologies Task Force.
According to numbers released to the university trustees at their September 2014 meeting, faculty grant money is on the increase. For the 2013-2014 school year, the university brought in $82 million in faculty grants, up from $76.6 million in the previous cycle.
According to Gern, research is the second highest source of undergraduate employment, after residence life and dining.
“Really, the great thing about the University of Wyoming is we are the right size. We have a lot of funding and we are small enough to work with (students) one on one,” Gern said.
Though numbers haven’t been released for this year, raises announced in spring 2014 — the first since 2009 — may help stem faculty turnover. The $5.15 million increase for UW salaries equates to an overall 2.92 percent boost.
Of that amount, $2.5 million came as a market pay increase. Faculty received another $2.65 million on a merit pay basis. The merit money came from taxpayer dollars appropriated by the legislature ($1 million) and tuition increases approved by the university ($1.65 million).
In some cases the research office tries to entice faculty members to stay at UW. The research office typically works with college deans and department heads to put together a retention package.
If retention efforts don’t pan out, the university faces new-faculty startup costs that can reach $250,000 to $1 million per hire. It can take a decade or more before the new professor reaches the same level of productivity as the person they replaced, creating a lag in research grant revenue.
Energy research and diversification
Over the past seven years the state has put a significant amount of money into energy research at the university. Part of that money goes to the School of Energy Resources (SER), which was established in 2007 and has a biennial budget of about $20 million.
Unlike every other academic program on campus, SER answers directly to the university president, rather than the provost, a change implemented by former President Sternberg. The school’s funding is provided by special legislative appropriation that is not part of the university’s block grant.
Lawmakers have also put $100 million in taxpayer funds toward rebuilding the College of Engineering. Part of that money will go to energy-related programs like petroleum engineering.
Further, the Legislature created several programs to match large donations to the university dollar for dollar. The matching funds are not solely for energy-related programs, but in recent years a significant amount of the money has matched donations from energy industry donors, such as Halliburton, Hess, and WPX Energy.
Lewis attributes the focus on energy research to state leaders in Cheyenne.
“I think it was a drive from the previous two governors — the fact that one was a Democrat and certainly had to convince the energy segment that he was not going to threaten it,” Lewis said.
“So, therefore, there had to be some efforts to make sure they were kept happy. In the Legislature there is a very strong presence from the energy industry, which I think has a large influence about where funding is to be made, and that goes over to the university somewhat. They (UW leaders) realized that energy was a viable thing to go to the Legislature and ask for money, and have less difficulty convincing them of where the university could expand.”
Such a process reflects what economists call “rent seeking,” where government and public institutions align themselves to support the sectors of the economy that produce the most tax revenue. Rather than providing seed money for developing new industries, energy revenue can create barriers to economic diversification. Lawmakers have said that Wyoming should focus on developing its strength of mineral production, while also making efforts at diversification.
“At some point in time the energy is going to run out, and in order to keep your best and your brightest — energy is not going to do that,” Lewis said. “There is a job exodus (among Wyoming’s young people). … If you are not going to develop high technology industries, these people aren’t going to stay around. It’s a mistake not to diversify and I didn’t think that was likely to change in the near term.”
Diversifying the economy isn’t easy, Lewis said. It requires looking out 20 years into the future, and recognizing that any initial investments may not bear fruit for a decade or more.
In Utah’s Cache Valley, where Lewis works, the population is about twice that of Laramie. He estimates that this small area contains more economic diversification than the entire state of Wyoming. That’s partly the result of economics, and partly the result of Utah’s efforts to develop new business through research to commercialization programs like USTAR.
Wyoming lawmakers say they intend to make significant investments in taxpayer funds at the university in coming years, particularly in engineering and science. The university’s Science Initiative is projected to spend more than $100 million to remake laboratory buildings and teach core science.
In last month’s discussions of the Science Initiative Task Force, university officials mentioned water research as a potential area of investment, while others have noted that computational science is a strength in many departments because of UW’s access to supercomputers.
The Science Initiative did not originate at the university. It was created by lawmakers via a budget footnote in the 2014 legislative session, which provided that the governor would appoint an outside Task Force to guide the project. That group includes members from academia, the energy industry, and the biomedical field, who are advised by a group of science faculty.
In the coming weeks the Task Force will consider recommendations from faculty on niche areas that the Science Initiative will focus on. Those recommendations will then go to the governor and the legislature for consideration in the 2015 session. Thus the outcome of the Science Initiative is largely in the hands of elected officials.
“UW is unusual in how much money it gets from the state,” Jackson said. “Resources will continue to diminish and they will be embattled. If they are going to prosper and flourish they need to do some reinvention, and in doing so they will fulfill their responsibility to the society that supports them.”
The fundamental value of science research
For Frost, the most significant work of the university isn’t career and technical training, but teaching students how to think critically and solve problems. Her own research focuses on studying pre-cambrian granite, including the 3.3 billion year old rocks that form the substrate of Wyoming’s energy resources. She says a number of her graduate students have gone on to work in the energy industry.
“Even though we are a land grant college and have an obligation to serve the state and prepare people for careers, to me what matters the most is fostering those intellectual habits of mind,” Frost said.
“You are always having to weigh and value and decide in the context of not knowing everything you wish you could know. Being able to do that is so important. That’s what I would like students to graduate knowing.”
Frost believes that students can learn to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty from a wide variety of departments and disciplines.
“Exposing students to those activities, and helping them develop those ways of thinking so they become problem solvers — to me that is the essence of higher education,” Frost said.
She noted her excitement at the prospect of pursuing such work at the national level through her two-year appointment at NSF, while also continuing her geology research through periodic visits to UW. Her situation is somewhat unique in that most senior faculty who leave UW won’t be coming back.
As the state and private donors contemplate spending more to elevate the university, Frost believes it’s important that faculty be counted as an important source of financial and intellectual contributions.
“In addition to acknowledging all the wonderful support from donors and the legislature, I would love to see us make sure we acknowledge the successes of individual faculty members when they bring in projects that support student learning and push back the frontiers of science,” Frost said.
“The university is only as good as its faculty, in the end. We want to make sure we support these people.”
University of Wyoming faculty departures 2006-2013NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Maggi Murdock’s departure as associate provost had been her plan since 2010, and was not a response to provost Myron Allen’s dismissal. A second update specified the August 2012 date of Stephen Jackson’s hire in Arizona. For more WyoFile reporting on UW, read these reports:
$115 million pledged to make UW engineering top tier, January 22, 2013.Point and Counterpoint: Closed UWYO Presidential Search Process, by Gregory Nickerson, February 6, 2013.New University of Wyoming president Robert Sternberg aims to invest in people, by Gregory Nickerson, May 7, 2013.Students and faculty question spate of resignations at University of Wyoming under Sternberg, November 5, 2013.Amid leadership changes, Sternberg wants University of Wyoming to be No. 1, September 3, 2013.Robert Sternberg resigns as University of Wyoming president, November 15, 2013.Halliburton joins University of Wyoming’s list of energy donors, March 20, 2014.University of Wyoming attempts to rebuild after Sternberg shakeup, September 2, 2014.Group plans $100 million project to remake science at University of Wyoming, October 23, 2014.UW flourishes with public, private backing, by Dick McGinity, September 23, 2014.University of Wyoming opens oil & gas drilling simulation lab, October 7, 2014.