The University of Wyoming will enter the 2022 fiscal year with a wide array of new financial constraints after the school’s board of trustees finalized roughly $16.5 million in reduced spending on June 16.

Deans and other university leaders have warned that the cuts will further strain the overworked faculty and will hinder the academic ambitions established by administrators and the Wyoming Legislature. 

And yet the worst is still to come; next month UW leaders plan to announce up to $17.5 million in additional cuts. Those are expected to result in a pronounced constriction of UW’s programming.

The budget woes are largely the consequence of a $31.3 million cut to UW’s block grant approved by the Legislature this spring as part of a broader effort to offset diminishing revenues from Wyoming’s minerals industry. During UW budget hearings in May, most deans expressed concern about faculty shortages — a persistent issue since the last round of budget cuts in 2016 — and President Ed Seidel warned the upcoming academic year is likely to be “a bit more turbulent” for faculty losses.

‘Unsustainable shortages’

The College of Education will take a 10% cut under the new budget, losing four faculty slots and 60 credit hours worth of teaching.

The college’s interim dean, Leslie Rush, told trustees that the college has “unsustainable shortages” in certain programs, most notably early education and the college’s leadership program, the latter of which now only has one full-time faculty member.

“People are stretched pretty thin and this is going to stretch them further,” she said. “What we’re experiencing throughout our programs is an increased reliance on adjunct faculty to deliver required curriculum.”

Senior Kye Catlin wears a face covering as he studies in University of Wyoming’s Coe Library in October 2020. (Jeff Victor/WyoFile)

The College of Business is losing six faculty positions, which accounts for more than 10% of that college’s total faculty.

“Sometimes there’s a narrative in the state that there have not been costs at the university and that maybe we’ve not had personnel reductions,” College of Business interim dean Rob Godby said last month. “Sometimes people don’t realize what types of personnel reductions that have gone on because they haven’t come through a huge [reduction in force], but because they’ve been through attrition.”

The cuts mean the college’s remaining faculty no longer have the capacity to teach all required classes for the College of Business’s majors and minors, Godby said. To get students to graduation on time, the college will grant waivers for students, allowing them to complete different courses to finish their degrees.

“It’s not optimal because you obviously design a major and minor to cover specific subject areas,” he said.

The high teaching load of College of Business professors also means it will only be harder to recruit new faculty, who expect to be able to dedicate more of their time to research, Godby said.

“That’s been one of the reasons in particular that we’ve had trouble keeping faculty in finance, because they can have lower teaching loads at a research institution,” he said. Godby said the college is now relying more on online classes, which isn’t ideal for on-campus students.

“I don’t find it an acceptable solution that a student in economics may not be able to get into a face-to-face class before their fourth year, but that is an example of what the immediate effects of these cuts have been,” he said.

The budget reductions are also undermining major investments for STEM programming the Legislature has made in the past decade.

From 2012-2014, the Legislature and former Gov. Matt Mead worked to craft a plan to bring the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences up to “Tier 1” status, a somewhat loose label that independent observers bestow upon the country’s top engineering schools like MIT and Stanford. In 2014, the Legislature approved $26.4 million in initial funding for UW to work toward that goal. The Legislature later funded construction of the $105 million Engineering Education and Research Building, which opened in 2019.

Despite those mammoth investments, that funding was appropriated on a one-time basis, and the College of Engineering continues to face general fund reductions, making it difficult to maintain the sustainable long-term investment needed to bring the college to Tier 1 status. Both the 2016 cuts and the new round in the 2022 fiscal year budget have scaled back funding for professors and PhD students, meaning the College of Engineering is no closer to reaching its Tier 1 aspiration than it was five years ago, according to interim dean Cameron Wright. With the new cuts, it’s “extremely difficult” for the college to achieve that goal, he said.

The college lost faculty after UW’s biennial budget was cut by $42 million in 2016, and it is losing another eight faculty positions as a result of the latest budget cuts.

“The gains we’ve made towards Tier 1 status are in jeopardy. We have insufficient faculty numbers and it’s certainly affecting the educational experience of our students as well as their career preparations,” Wright said. “We’re to the point now that faculty sizes are so small in all departments that required courses are taught once a year, and so when a student [doesn’t complete a class], it puts them back a year. It’s a time-to-degree issue. It’s a student morale issue and, to some degree, it affects instructor proficiency because they aren’t teaching those classes that often.”

Brayton Tolman, a UW mechanical engineering student from Torrington, uses a robotic arm June 16 at the Innovation Wyrkshop, the university makerspace with more than $1.4 million of 3D printers and other equipment. The space opened in 2019 as part of the new Engineering Education and Research Building. (Daniel Bendtsen)

As with the College of Education, the engineering college is now only able to deliver an accredited program by relying on temporary lecturers. Wright said he now has to hire — each semester — 20-30 temporary lecturers, who are incapable of bringing in new research grants or serving in significant mentorship roles for students in the way faculty do.

“None of that happens with temporary lecturers, so when I’m hiring 20-30 of them each semester, I feel like I’m just throwing money away,” he said.

When the first round of Tier 1 funding came in, the College of Engineering increased its number of PhD students and invested in collaborative lab projects, but such efforts are no longer possible, Wright said.

During budget hearings, UW Trustee and former Speaker of the House Kermit Brown said the withering of Tier 1 goals is particularly concerning.

“From my years in the Legislature, I’m perhaps more sensitive than some about how important that was viewed in the Legislature and continues to be viewed,” he said. The Legislature appropriated $3 million for the Tier 1 goal in 2019 and, at the behest of former Senate President Eli Bebout, allocated another $1 million in 2020.

Wright said his one current hope to reverse the loss of faculty is to develop an increased reliance on “soft money,” like federal grants or American Recovery Plan Act funding that could be used to set up self-sustaining programs.

Lost grants, pay cuts and ripple effects

The latest budget cuts are also hammering the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, whose decline in programming after the 2016 cuts has been a particular concern for legislators on the Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee.

During the 2016 budget cuts, many employees in the College of Agriculture took advantage of early retirement incentives. The college lost 15% of its staffing in that cut and has yet to reverse those losses. The college is also no longer competitive for grants and contracts because the condition of current facilities is “not up to modern standards for agricultural research,” Dean Barbara Rasco said in May.

During an August inspection of UW’s animal facilities — in which UW houses about 100 sheep and another 100 other animals — the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that one shelter for sheep had broken sides that left the sheep vulnerable to “jagged edges and wires.” The USDA also reported that inadequate maintenance exposed sheep to dirty water and a chipmunk facility had overgrown vegetation — both scenarios put the animals at risk for disease, the report states.

Rasco fears she’ll lose even more faculty members in the upcoming year.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in our college is loss of talent due to increased competition from other institutions and the private sector, as well as salary inversion and compression within our college,” Rasco told the trustees. “We’re finding that we’re in a global market now for people in our college who have been asked to take positions with NGOs and government entities and will still be able to be housed in Laramie. The whole focus in our job market has shifted and we’re very much concerned that, with COVID and the shift to online work, that there’s going to be greater risk of having our faculty poached now more than ever.”

The budget cuts threaten the college’s ability to meet federal cost-share requirements for research grants, she said.

“If we face another cut of this size, we are going to be in a position where we are going to forfeit federal dollars because we can’t make the match requirements,” she said.

Losing staff is also a major concern for athletic director Tom Burman, who instituted pay cuts of 2.5-5% for his staff.

“We have some very talented people in our department, and when you ask them to take a 5% pay cut — we’re going to have to address that pretty soon or we’re going to have some pretty fast defections,” he told trustees.

Football fans pass through the student entrance of War Memorial Stadium for University of Wyoming’s first home game of the season Oct. 30, 2020. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

UW’s financial picture is also undermining plans for another major project: the $100 million Science Initiative building, which is set to open this fall. While many units have made plans to move faculty into the space, there’s still no identified funds to complete a 5,000-square-foot lab on the building’s fourth floor, said Greg Brown, associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences who’s overseen the Science Initiative’s development.

Because of a lack of funding, Brown said plans are also “on thin ice” for the Center for Advanced Scientific Instrumentation, a planned wing of the Science Initiative building that would provide state-of-the-art equipment like spectrometers and microscopes for faculty across campus and community colleges.

More cuts on the horizon

Meanwhile, administrators are preparing a plan, set to be unveiled by July 15, to cut expenditures from the state’s general fund by another 10% — roughly $17.5 million. To prepare for that cut, a group of faculty and students were tasked last fall with conducting a “strategic portfolio review,” in which all academic programs were ranked based on factors like UW’s strategic plan, the needs of the state and student demand.

Those findings, which have not been made public, were submitted to the Office of Academic Affairs in late April. Within the next month, UW is scheduled to publish a report that proposes consolidation, reorganization and elimination of some programs.

“We will do the very best we can at preserving everything we can that we think is important to the state while finding ways to reduce our expenditures, because the state budget cuts have made that imperative,” Seidel said, noting there would be “very difficult decisions expected in July.”

To compensate for the state’s bleak financial picture, Seidel said UW needs to diversify revenue sources — especially by seeking more federal funding. To compete against China, the U.S. Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act earlier this month. If it becomes law, the bill would add $81 billion to the National Science Foundation over the next five years — doubling the agency’s budget.

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Seidel said he’s met with NSF’s director to ensure UW is prepared to compete for the expected funding.

“I want to make sure we’re in a very good position to receive some of those funds,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing the university hasn’t been real active in during the past — working the federal channels of funding.”

Some revenue losses will also be offset by the $18.6 million UW is set to receive in the upcoming year from the American Recovery Plan Act, though at least half that sum is required to be spent on direct aid to students.

UW will also compete for the $1.1 billion in ARP funding that Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature are in charge of doling out in coming years. 

Daniel Bendtsen is a freelance journalist living in Green River. He previously spent five years working at the Riverton Ranger and Laramie Boomerang. Originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Bendtsen...

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  1. What if the University of Wyoming becomes a four year institution devoted to the relevant sciences and technogy with a small “pod” of other courses in the social sciences, arts, literature, phiosophy in which each student will take a certain number of credits before graduation? Then the many ( in my opinion too many) community colleges get converted to single specialty campuses, ,say, business, animal science, agriculture, tourism studies and education ( I think Riverton has already done this) , also with limited options and requirements for other courses? Students whose needs are not covered by the new structure could be offered a state stipend to attend, say, CSU. In a state with no money and little hope of getting it due to right wing politics a drastic change is imperative for any higher education to be available at all. Sad to see what was a decent state university with something for everyone go down the tubes but I guess Wyoming has to “cowboy up.” and that could mean thinking out of the box .

  2. Having a student at U of Wyoming during Covid AND listening to other parents & students, the professors are making way too much and doing way too little anyway so now they might actually have to do their jobs. (Probably not, as they expect the students to teach themselves!).

    The last 18 months have been a joke when it comes to teaching. I had one student tell me they googled and watched other universities videos to do their work. A faculty member told me the professors don’t want to go to the classrooms. Why? They are doing minimum work, sitting at home, getting paid.

    Cut the salaries. Forget tenure- don’t do the job then leave! MAYBE then, the legislature won’t have to decrease the funding!

    1. sounds like having a kid in college (and knowing a few other folks who do as well) makes you an expert at the economics of running a university, Pamela.

      So please, enlighten us about the following:
      –what do you think will happen if U Wyoming does away with tenure? Hint: it won’t improve the problems about which you’re complaining.
      –what should a college professor be paid?
      –what do college professors get paid to do?
      –what constitutes ‘minimum work’?
      –if U Wyoming is as bad as you claim, why are there still so many students there? Hint: compare its prices with other 4-year institutions, and recall the old adage: you get what you pay for.
      –why do you think U Wyoming professors (like those around the country) were hesitant to teach in person in the Spring and Fall 2020? Hint: it wasn’t because they’re lazy. While it may be true that students don’t learn as much from online teaching, it is false that teaching online is easier than teaching in person.

  3. Drop back and put on the wide angle lens.
    The state next door to me – Montana – has no less than twelve ( 12 ! ) four year colleges or universities, five of which offer Master’s and Doctoral degrees and are publically funded. There are a great many private and parochial colleges scattered across Montana

    Wyoming has only one university or college offering anything above a baccalaureate degree … U-Dub . That’s it.

    Wyoming cannot even fully adequately support a single University. The states surrounding us are saturated with higher learning institutions. Utah and Colorado’s schools are mind boggling.

    That Wyoming cannot pony up to bankroll its only 4-year school is not at all due to the lower base population. That does not fit the facts ; does not dovetail with the national spectrum of higher education both public and private.

    Wyoming’s only university is on the rocks because that is where the legislature and leadership want it. Of course UW Football gets a pass… by far the highest paid state employee in all of Wyoming government is the Coboy football coach.

    BOTTOM LINE : this is a glaring example of where monolithic Republicanism and Cowboy Conservatism lead us. How embarrassing.

    1. HEY DEWEY,


      1. Hi, Dan–
        thx for the critique. For being a Land Grant college and the state constitution mandating the Legislature fully fund the best possible education all across wyoming, we should not be struggling to keep UW afloat.

        I’m no relation to any Vanderhoffs in Sheridan that I’m aware of , although my grandparents came down to Cody in 1905 from Forsyth MT not too far north of Sheridan.
        Coincidentally I have an older first cousin in your Bakersfield ( California, I presume) named Bill Holbrook who had about 8-9 kids all raised there

  4. The less quality education the University is able to provide the happier the Wyoming legislature is about it.

  5. The increasing use of adjunct faculty to teach is a countrywide phenomenon. Their salaries are relatively inexpensive compared to permanent faculty. At the same time UW has the reputation for having pay at the lower end of salary scales compared to other Tier 1 universities – perhaps at the bottom. Bendtsen’s perspective illustrates why junior faculty would come to UW only as a last resort, or as a stepping stone.

    It seems the Board of Trustees and State Legislature are eager to spend money on capital improvements, but loathe to fund faculty positions or pay decently. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t view the status of the University to be determined by the physical plant, not the quality of the research faculty produces – the hallmark of a Tier 1 university.

    1. Not tier 1.

      The article does not make that clear.

      The glints from the article suggest the school is (very) far from Tier 1.

      For example, hiring 30 temporary lecturers per year is like a raging 6 alarm fire level.

      I will also point out a very real, but possibly uncomfortable, fact:

      Beautiful mountain vistas and cheap real estate are not enough to get many of the nation’s approximately 80% politically deep-blue scientists to move to an 80% ruby red state.

      That proportion gets even more stark when you consider successful, high performing, scientists.

      Lol, imagine convincing Chinese researchers to move to Wyoming….

      Yes…. there may be a few takers…..

      Compare to literally anywhere else, even Texas. There are 5x as many Chinese post docs and faculty.

    1. In theory, the cash flow generated from the new dorm buildings. (people who live in the dorms pay money to do so, thus that regularly generated revenue will be utilized to service the debt over time)

      In reality, I think they’re just secretly hoping the legislature will be able to bail them out somehow, somewhere down the road.

  6. Aside from the faculty shortages and turnover, I think it should also be noted that 3 of the 4 deans quoted in this article hold the “interim” qualifier in their titles. I have high opinions of all of these individuals at UW, don’t get me wrong, but I think it also indicates just how pervasive the problem is with recruitment and retention at UW. Every level from the bottom to the very top (president) has seen constant turnover and disruption over several years. It’s a revolving door of mostly good people, but people who can’t do anything beyond just crisis response and basic survival before they’re burned out. The whole institution has been in a constant state of dysfunction since at least 2016. It not only hasn’t improved, but has actually gotten worse. This negatively affects UW’s ability to innovate, improve and attract new revenue (as the article aptly covers) but most importantly, it negatively affects students and our state. The idea that Students are increasingly unable to complete their programs or completion is being delayed simply because UW can’t afford to offer the classes they need as often as they need them is just downright inexcusable.