In a recent editorial, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle promotes the narrative that the University of Wyoming has become a captive of the energy industry and the Legislature — that academic freedom has been sacrificed in exchange for state and private funding for UW facilities and programs focused on energy. The newspaper asserts that the quality of UW education is being eroded by the alleged energy industry takeover.
Thanks for raising the issue. It’s important, and I welcome the discussion.
In fact, state and private funding over the past decade has enhanced UW’s academic standing, and instruction and research are flourishing across campus in a wide range of disciplines. It is true that an inability to retain some top employees has been an issue because of a five-year period of no state funding for pay raises, but there’s no evidence those departures had anything to do with lack of academic freedom. UW researchers are expanding the boundaries of knowledge in a host of areas of study, creating and sharing that knowledge for the good of the state, the nation and the world.
The university has significantly expanded its programs relating to the state’s energy industry, an entirely appropriate activity for Wyoming’s land-grant and flagship university. The decisions to develop the School of Energy Resources and bring the College of Engineering and Applied Science to top-quartile status in academic areas of importance to the state were made enthusiastically by the UW Board of Trustees. However, support from industry and elected officials for these UW endeavors is crucial, not only for the financial resources they can bring, but because the energy industry is one of the largest employers of graduates from these programs.
The objective is to help Wyoming and its people prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy by developing its own entrepreneurs, strengthening the state’s key industries and growing a diversity of businesses, resulting in job creation and a stronger tax base. Across the nation, it is understood that universities are not only centers of learning, but important engines of economic development as well.
The successes UW is experiencing in the School of Energy Resources and College of Engineering and Applied Science are occurring across many disciplines that also are important to the state’s residents. Due to strong support from governors and legislators past and present, there have been meaningful investments in programs in health sciences, business, life sciences, education and computational sciences, among others, that have significantly benefited the people of Wyoming.
UW has received support from the state’s elected officials in a wide range of academic endeavors, as evidenced by the university’s new showpiece Visual Arts Center and the expansion and renovation of the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts, which is nearing completion. Due to state and private funding support, a number of academic units have achieved distinction nationally and internationally, including our vibrant Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, biodiversity, botany, nursing, creative writing, molecular biology, business, music and theater.
Just this month, UW’s Department of Economics and Finance was ranked as one of the world’s top programs in environmental economics by the organization Research Papers in Economics. Among the world’s universities, UW ranks seventh, tied with Oxford University. Among only U.S. universities, UW is fourth behind Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale. I also would point out that these fine universities and many others — as well as their faculties and students — are beneficiaries of enormous research funding from both public sector and industry sources, and academic freedom within them does not appear to be suffering as a result.
What is the newspaper’s evidence of a loss of UW academic freedom? Its recent editorial essentially cites two examples: the unwillingness of several faculty members to speak with a journalist because of the fear of repercussions, and the removal of the Carbon Sink sculpture two years ago.
On the first example, I’m not aware of any instances in which a UW faculty member has been muzzled or punished for speaking his or her mind on any topic. In fact, faculty members and students regularly express opinions on a variety of issues — on platforms provided by both the university and outside media outlets — with no indications of any type of retribution. If any has occurred, I am eager to know about it. Give me the details, not anonymous quotes from articles in other publications.
Regarding the second, the controversy regarding Carbon Sink happened two presidents ago. Like art often does, this piece generated a lot of discussion in 2011, some of it quite heated. But, let’s look beyond the rhetoric to determine if UW suffered any retribution from elected officials or private contributors as a result of it.
The WTE notes that one legislator expressed unhappiness with the sculpture by threatening to withhold funding from UW, but here are the facts: While the sculpture was still in place, the 2012 Legislature appropriated and granted bonding authorization of more than $190 million to UW, one of the most generous sessions in the university’s 127-year history. And the UW Foundation had one of its most successful private fundraising years in the midst of the controversy.
As Wyoming’s only public four-year institution of higher learning, UW most certainly receives pressure from many individuals and groups. However, the facts just don’t support those who insist that UW has been harmed by undue legislative and industry influence. If they have evidence, it’s time for them to produce it.
— Richard C. McGinity is president of the University of Wyoming.