Prexy's Pasture on the University of Wyoming campus. In meetings last week university trustees approved two resolutions that would seek funding for endowed chairs and a program to remake the College of Education. (courtesy photo)

Trustees of the University of Wyoming approved two initiatives that seek major funding for programs to remake the College of Education and increase the number of endowed professorships on campus.

Trustee President David Palmerlee noted his excitement about the two new projects. “They are big-picture, big-money, long-term things that demand major beneficial results for the university,” he said. “They won’t be close to fruition when I leave the board, but hopefully they will be started, structured, staffed, and maybe funded. So am I excited about that? Yes.”

The Trustees Endowed Chairs Initiative and the Education Initiative follow on similar projects that call for large amounts of state funding and private grants toward the College of Engineering and the core science departments on campus. The two latest initiatives began with trustees, in contrast to the already in-progress Engineering Initiative and the Science Initiative, which began as directives from lawmakers in Cheyenne.

Old Main at the University of Wyoming. The two new initiatives are driven by trustees, rather than the legislature. They are intended to incorporate significant input from faculty, along with foundation representatives, administrators, and lawmakers. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

“That’s not by accident,” Palmerlee said. “The trustees believe that we are a policy board. These are major policy issues, and they should emanate from the board of trustees. (We) would develop the concepts and do so with the university administration and faculty, and in collaboration with the Legislature.”

Palmerlee introduced the resolutions at a Nov. 13 board of trustees meeting at the Gateway Center in Laramie. Trustees passed the resolutions unanimously. He explained that the idea for the Endowed Chairs Initiative came out of a meeting with representatives from the University of Wyoming Foundation, including president Ben Blalock, board chair Scott Neu, and vice-chair April Brimmer-Kunz. During the meeting, the group discussed major fundraising priorities for the university, and identified endowed professorships as an area of opportunity.

The Endowed Chairs Initiative will be structured to have a university faculty board to provide input to a task force of trustees, foundation representatives, and outside members.

“There are two boards that will be created according to the resolution,” university spokesman Chad Baldwin said. “One is the endowed chairs advisory board, with three trustees, president Blalock and four other members, and in addition there will be an endowed chairs academic board that will consist of president McGinity, representatives of administration, the foundation and the faculty.”

The group will invite every unit of the university to submit proposals for endowed chairs. The task force will then forward a list of recommendations that lawmakers will consider in the 2016 legislative session.

In an endowed chair position the university raises and invests a substantial portion of funds, perhaps $3 million to $5 million, and pays a professor off the yearly income. The amount paid to an endowed professor can range from $150,000 to $250,000 or more. The hope is that that level of pay and prestige would allow UW to better retain top faculty already on campus, while helping to recruit top-flight faculty with national reputations.

The presence of just one or two endowed professorships in a department can raise the excellence of the entire group. That, in turn, can create greater opportunities for students in terms of grant money, research, publications, and future prospects for graduate school or the job market.

While the plan is preliminary, Palmerlee projects that the endowed chairs initiative could require up to $100 million in taxpayer funds, appropriated by the Legislature, with an equal match raised by the UW Foundation through private donors.

“Raising $100 million for any foundation is a challenge, for sure, but we are fortunate to have a Legislature that hopefully will provide matching dollars to help us,” UW Foundation board chair Scott Neu wrote in a statement. ”This is an extremely attractive program and I believe there is pent up private support out there that has been waiting for match dollars to come back more broadly.”

If energy prices stay high and the Wyoming economy stays reasonably strong, the foundation could potentially raise its $100 million in private match funds in two to three years, Neu said.

One challenge with the endowed chairs proposal compared to other recent initiatives is that lawmakers didn’t request it. It may not match legislative priorities given its broad focus. In the next year the initiative will take shape and prioritize the proposed menu of chairs that the Legislature will be asked to choose from.

“Right now, (the endowed chairs initiative) isn’t part of the university’s budget request,” said Chris Boswell, UW vice president for governmental and community affairs. The earliest the proposal could be included the university budget request would be for the 2017-2018 spending cycle, but that won’t be decided until the leadup to the 2016 legislative session a year from now. That’s in contrast to the Science Initiative, which was requested by the Legislature and will be the subject of a nearly $4 million request for budgeting in the 2015 session.

On hearing news of the Endowed Chairs Initiative, some faculty wondered what role UW foundation president Ben Blalock would have in deciding which departments will get the endowed chairs.

“Ben Blalock as president of the foundation will have a role in identifying potential private sources of funding for matching public dollars to create these professorships,” Baldwin said. “The foundation has played that role in the past creating many other (endowed chairs), and it is entirely appropriate that the foundation have a role in moving forward with this initiative.”

The Education Initiative will examine the current status of the College of Education and identify opportunities to improve the college. The initiative follows closely on the model of similar efforts aimed at engineering and science.

The Education Initiative isn’t meant to criticize the current work of the College of Education, or point out flaws, Palmerlee said. Interim education dean Michael Day agreed with that statement, saying that the College of Education isn’t broken. Instead, he sees the initiative as a way to attract significant investment to a college tasked with training Wyoming’s K-12 teachers and administrators.

Investing in people

University of Wyoming faculty at the 2010 College of Arts and Sciences graduation. The Trustees Endowed Chairs Initiative seeks to invest in people, rather than buildings. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Following on more than a decade of significant capital construction and investment in programs relating engineering and the School of Energy Resources, the Endowed Chairs Initiative represents the largest proposal to date to broadly invest in human resources across the university.

The measure comes on the heels of several years of notably high faculty turnover, and five years of relatively flat salaries for professors. For many, the average 2.9 percent raise granted last spring didn’t fully make up for the loss of purchasing power due to inflation and increased retirement and health insurance costs accrued since 2009.

The trustees’ action could be seen as responding to the refrain — often repeated on campus — that the university needs to invest in people, not just bricks and mortar.

“That is a significant element,” said Palmerlee. “I would not envision the Endowed Chairs Initiative having a capital facilities component. It is about the people.”

Not one, but three initiatives

Trustees say the initiatives will continue efforts at better communication with the Legislature, which provides roughly $350 million of the university’s $544 million biennial budget.

“There are really three initiatives,” Palmerlee explained. “One is the legislative initiative which we started at our July meeting, where we invited the legislature to come and meet with us, and that went, in my view, very, very well, and we are seeing dividends from that. That’s the foundation for the Endowed Chairs and Education Initiative because, ultimately, the legislature has to approve and fund these things.”

The trustees have not yet formalized the Legislative Initiative, Palmerlee said, but plans include increasing communication between lawmakers, trustees, and administration.

“We’ve got a plan set up to work with the leadership of the Legislature,” Palmerlee said. “Because of the press of other things like these two initiatives, we haven’t formalized it.”

Importantly, what Palmerlee called “the pathway to the faculty” will include direct communication between faculty and lawmakers at legislative committee meetings.

“It is definitely to improve communication with the board of trustees, but more importantly with the university and its units and colleges,” Palmerlee said. “… We have to be sure that the faculty is involved in a major way.”

Activity along these lines is already occurring, starting with the July 15 trustees’ meeting in Casper which several lawmakers attended, and continuing with a meeting between the Judiciary Committee and interim dean of the law School Jacquelyn Bridgeman held in Laramie in September.

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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