After pushback from stakeholders on and off campus, the University of Wyoming’s administrators have opted to delay for more than a year much of their plan to reorganize the university.
The reorganization plan includes a significant downsizing of the College of Arts of Sciences accomplished by moving science programs to other colleges.
The complete restructuring was originally set to be implemented after the current academic year, pending approval by the board of trustees.
Instead, after faculty and staff critiqued the process as unduly rushed, administrators now plan to implement most aspects of the restructuring in July 2023 as part of a normal strategic planning process to begin in coming months.
UW’s most recent strategic plan was implemented in 2017 and expires next year.
“As many people have pointed out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do a reorg and then do a strategic plan,” Provost Kevin Carman said during a campus meeting Friday. “Having that discussion simultaneously is a healthier way of approaching this.”
Under the latest proposal, stakeholders could continue to adjust major aspects of the reorganization until final approval by the trustees in December 2022.
But campus morale, already damaged by high administrative turnover in recent years, has taken a hit during the reorganization process, many say. Other critiques question the longevity of yet another presidential vision.
‘Decisive’ actions on some changes
Administrators will still ask the trustees next week to finalize, effective July 2022, a number of the less controversial changes, like a consolidation of the Department of Physics & Astronomy with the Department of Atmospheric Science — a move endorsed by both departments.
Another proposal still slated for implementation next summer is the elimination of advanced degree programs in four areas: philosophy, finance, energy and statistics. All four have low enrollment.
“The board is looking for us to move forward and take decisive action and not to kick the can down the road,” President Ed Seidel said, recounting recent conversations with board members.
The consolidation of the Department of Computer Science with the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering is also still proposed for implementation next summer.
Faculty in those departments have questioned the rationale for the merger, but have also described it as a reasonable concept.
Ruben Gamboa, who currently chairs the Department of Computer Science, worked more than a decade in private industry, where these kinds of mergers happen frequently, he said.
The consolidation Gamboa currently faces bodes possible benefits and dangers.
If the two departments currently teach similar enough classes, for example, some coursework could be merged for teaching efficiencies. However, Gamboa noted that mergers can also result in needless conflict if two departments with different cultures are pooled.
“At this university, we’ve seen that in the past,” he said. “There’s a history, but I’m not going to say those things are going to happen here.”
A need to cut budgets?
Administrators’ original reorganization plans, announced in July, would have laid off up to 70 employees — mostly faculty — while consolidating more departments and eliminating more programs than the current plan calls for.
The reorganization was initiated by pressure to cut budgets, with administrators invoking a formal program-review process and establishing timelines.
Most of the savings from the reorganization plan, such as all expected layoffs, however, have since been stripped from consideration after backlash on campus. The lack of projected savings bolstered detractors’ arguments against rushing to finalize the plans.
Chris Rothfuss, (D-Laramie), minority floor leader of the Wyoming Senate, and a visiting assistant professor at UW, told trustees he’ll actively oppose the reorganization, asserting there’s no longer a financial need. “When the reorganization began, there was an expectation of significant additional cuts to the University block grant, requiring dramatic measures and a rapid response. This is no longer the case,” he wrote in an Oct. 28 letter to the board of trustees. “Unexpectedly high natural gas and oil prices, a faster than expected economic recovery from COVID, and significant additional state revenue from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 have eliminated the need for immediate cuts. In fact,‘maintenance of effort’ conditions within the ARP Act effectively preclude the Wyoming Legislature from cutting statewide higher education funding over the next two years.”
State revenue for the 2021 fiscal year exceeded the January forecast put forth by the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group by $248.2 million. CREG recently revised its projections for the next three fiscal years upward by a total of $596.9 million amid unexpectedly high oil and gas revenue.
Despite that, Seidel said last week UW can’t expect its economic woes to disappear, and still must find areas to cut.
“Regardless of what the CREG report says about the future of the state’s economy, we do have a very significant budget cut,” he said. “We are down about $60 million from the budget that was proposed two years ago. If people think that somehow that there’s a rosier economic forecast and we don’t have to cut budgets, that’s not correct. I’m charged and I have the responsibility to actually make those cuts.”
A meeting last week with Gov. Mark Gordon’s cabinet, Seidel said, gave him no expectation of more liberal state spending in the near future.
“The economic forecast for the state indicates a short-term bump-up in funds, but not a long-term one, so the governor will be extremely reluctant to increase budgets, and the Legislature will be similarly inclined for the future,” he said.
Seidel continues to emphasize the consequences of the state’s dwindling UW block grant in conversations with Gordon, he continued.
“We had a several-hour meeting (at the end of October) to talk about our budget and I reiterated our concerns about the budgets we have being inadequate to carry out the mission of the university,” Seidel said. “I will continue to do so and I feel like we’re making some progress, even if there’s no more money in our bank account yet.”
New admins, new programs
Part of Seidel’s motive to cut budgets is to free up more than $5 million to fund several new programs, like a School of Computing that would become the focal point of computing leadership on campus and infuse related science into more academic programs.
Some stakeholders have whole-heartedly endorsed the new initiatives. Others have acknowledged the programs’ theoretical merits while also arguing they’re not worth funding at the expense of existing programs.
When the new programs were originally announced, Faculty Senate Chair Adrienne Freng warned of low morale caused by “presidential vision whiplash.” Seidel is the sixth UW president since 2013.
One of his newly proposed initiatives, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, closely resembles an entity that UW prominently invested resources into less than three years ago, the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The first iteration was quietly abandoned by 2020 after former President Laurie Nichols departed and administrative priorities changed.
It’s that type of instability that makes faculty question whether Seidel’s initiatives will also eventually be abandoned, creating a wasted effort, they say.
Rather than spending funds to pursue new goals, Rothfuss has argued UW needs to prioritize completion of the goals it’s been pursuing for years, namely the Science Initiative and the Tier 1 Engineering Initiative.
Both programs were initiated under Gov. Matt Mead, who convened task forces to develop the ambitious programs. To advance the initiatives, UW has since constructed two buildings, each costing $100 million, largely with legislative funding.
UW is still far from meeting its goals in either initiative.
“We don’t need another new initiative,” Rothfuss wrote in his letter. “We need the University to follow through on these earlier commitments before embarking on the next.”
Rothfuss, a professor in UW’s Honors College, has championed funding for the university during his decade in the Legislature, but told administrators he won’t support funding for Seidel’s new programs if it comes at the expense of existing initiatives.
“I will not support state funding in the upcoming Legislative Budget Session for any new program that does not have the support and buy-in of our University faculty, staff, and students,” he wrote. “I will not support any funding for any new program that I feel detracts from our prior legislatively funded initiatives.”
With so much presidential turnover in recent years, some long-time faculty say it’s hard to buy into Seidel’s vision at an institution where presidential visions come and go so quickly.
“Why actually take this guy seriously when he might be gone in two years anyways?” Faculty Senate Chair-Elect Renee Laegreid said.
Narina Nunez, a professor of psychology, said it feels like each new president “completely rips the university apart and then leaves.
“And we’re left trying to pick up the pieces,” she said.
Noting she had yet to meet Seidel, Nunez said the president hasn’t gotten to know the UW community well enough to initiate such a dramatic reorganization.
“He never bothered to build trust,” she said. “We might have hated it anyways, but we would’ve trusted him.”
Nunez pointed to former President Phil Dubois, who helmed UW from 1997-2005, as an exemplar of earning that kind of trust, she said.
“He got to know every single person,” she said. “Faculty hated him half the time, but we trusted him to take us in the right direction.”
During Seidel’s first year as president, he lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic had prevented him from becoming acquainted with the UW community in the way he expected.
On Friday, he again acknowledged less-than-ideal engagement with the campus community, but said he hoped his outreach across the state would pay dividends in the long-run.
“I’ve been going a lot around the state,” he said. “I think it’s somewhat to my detriment on campus, but I just had to get to know legislators, chambers of commerce and stock-growers associations across the state.”
Seidel hopes those relationships prove helpful, he said, noting his rapport with the Joint Appropriations Committee has improved since he took office.