The Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center sits at the north end of the University of Wyoming campus and is considered by many to be the most beautiful new building at UW. One of its programs, the Biodiversity Institute, is facing closure. (Donal O’Toole)

The public comment session is a quiet affair at most University of Wyoming Board of Trustees meetings, typically a time for trustees to stretch their legs, fetch coffee or go to the bathroom. Not so at the November 2018 meeting. During that 30-minute session, a line of speakers filed one-by-one to the microphone to address the pending closure of the Biodiversity Institute, including: a graduate student from the program in ecology, UW’s most successful PhD offering; a woman from the Audubon Society; the head of zoology and physiology, one of the most research-active departments on campus; a past director of the BI; its current director; and me, a professor of veterinary science and chairman of the faculty senate.

At issue was the fate of the BI and what the administration should do about it.

The institute was created in September 2012 as part of the Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. The center houses numerous programs and sits at the north end of campus. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful new building at UW. The Berry family has been generous to the university through their charitable vehicle, the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation. In addition to the facility — which they funded with a $10 million gift, matched by $10 million from the state of Wyoming — and the BI, they’ve helped endow a professorship in ornithology, supported multiple museums and funded a public outreach unit.

By accident or design, the Berry building is down the road from the School of Energy Resources, and their proximity highlights a contrast in treatment. From the donor wall in the SER foyer, it is clear the university worked hard to identify donors to nurture the state’s dominant industry. The SER’s oversight board, composed predominantly of people from industry and the Legislature, ensures the school is largely insulated from normal university processes, including faculty governance (i.e., faculty input about a program’s academic direction).

From the School of Energy Resources foyer, it is clear the university worked hard to identify donors to nurture the state’s dominant industry. (Donal O’Toole)

The juxtaposition of the two facilities conveys a clear message. Yes, UW works closely with energy and will help with its research and training needs. But scientific understanding of the biological diversity of the region must generate its own private support before the university will invest time or resources.

The BI is small, with a staff of six. Its role is to engage with the public, particularly K-12 students and teachers. It supports the publication of books and brochures that explain scientific results and concepts in ecology.  Recently it helped publish a fine book by Dr. Matt Kauffman and colleagues about the migration routes of ungulates, Wild Migrations – Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates. It’s the third major publication in the BI book series.

Universities are often criticized as ivory towers. The BI provides a valuable counterpoint to that criticism by bringing university researchers into conversation with the public, sharing educational resources with teachers and providing opportunities for citizen participation in research. Between 2012 and 2017, the BI undertook 190 outreach events engaging over 14,000 people and conducted 17 citizen science projects with over 1,000 people in field data collection and analysis. It conducted 17 events for K-6 students and 71 events for middle- and high school students. In all it engaged more than 5,000 K-12 students. On the face of it, that should meet one of the UW’s strategic goals, that of “impacting communities.”

The UW strategic plan commits the university to addressing complex environmental problems — a commitment that BI is uniquely positioned to fulfill.

“Wild Migrations” is an oversized book with maps, illustrations, photographs and graphics that documents 70 migration stories of some of the million migrating wildlife in Wyoming. (Oregon State University Press)

Some trustees appeared to understand that the BI closure would hurt the university’s public reputation. Dr. David Fall thought that closing the institute was unwise, and stated his opposition during the November meeting. Trustee Kermit Brown played devil’s advocate to advocate in arguing why the BI should remain open. Laura Schmid-Pizzato, the board’s newest member, also expressed reservations. One trustee told me privately they had difficulty understanding the draft plan that recommended closure. Such public dissent is unusual. Even when thinking aloud on difficult issues, trustees like to project unanimity, particularly when Old Main has proposed a course of action.

A Broken Engagement?

When the administration made its closure announcement in July, people were stumped. The university’s strategic plan places heavy emphasis on public engagement. This is what the BI does, and does well.

I asked Dr. Synakowski, who wrote the report advocating closure, whether the BI’s staff did what was expected of them and did a good job. His answer was yes. The BI is popular with Wyoming school children and teachers.

The announcement was made in mid-summer in a press release with the header “UW pivots on biodiversity science.” A casual reader might infer UW intended to deepen its involvement with biodiversity. You had to read the entirety to learn the BI would be shuttered in December 2018.

As a fan of George Orwell I had mixed my feelings about the press release. I was disappointed by the closure decision, in part because it came in mid-summer, when most 9-month employees are distracted by summer research or writing, and because faculty senate had not been consulted. This violated a recently updated university regulation. But as a connoisseur of pre-1989 public statements from Eastern Europe, I couldn’t help but admire the masterful writing. It was a subtly misleading, evasive statement of intent. Even its title, with the phrase “transition plan,” suggested a commitment to biodiversity engagement while proposing its opposite.

Shortly after the closure decision became public, a faculty colleague and I met with President Laurie Nichols. She said the BI was running out of money and there was little prospect of finding another donor. We found this puzzling. The BI existed for 7 years and had become an important interface between UW and the public. She referred to the donor’s reputation for being “difficult” and said he had refused to subsidize the BI any longer. The UW Foundation beat the bushes for years to find other donors, Nichols said, but came up empty-handed. We were told the Berry family was interested only in grant-funded science, and was disinterested in educating school kids or the public about conservation. That also struck us as odd. The Science Kids program of northern Wyoming is made possible in part by the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation.

Robert Berry’s vision is etched into a plaque in the Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. (Donal O’Toole)

The mood on campus

The public status of the BI and its achievements became clear in October when the university administration held a public meeting about the BI’s fate. I anticipated poor attendance, given the current dour mood on campus. I was surprised to find a standing-room-only crowd. In addition to staff and faculty, there were members of the public, graduate students, and undergraduates. After a 40-minute presentation of the plan, the meeting was opened for questions. It became clear that almost everyone present, except President Nichols and Vice President for Research Synakowski, thought the decision unwise. Many on campus care about the integrity of Wyoming’s ecosystems, particularly its wildlife and habitat. Access to resources for walking, hunting and skiing, keep us in the state. The plan seemed to announce that biodiversity was fine, but only insofar as it generated external grants and plenty of overhead to support the university.  

The BI decision is not the only cause for consternation on campus. The results of a survey assessing the morale and opinions of UW employees was released recently, along with a detailed report.  

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Only 30 percent of UW employees thought upper administration was listening to them. A mere 11 percent of tenured faculty agreed with the statement that their units were adequately staffed to meet strategic goals. Confidence by employees, including administrators, in the institution’s senior leadership was a dismal 31 percent. Only 19 percent of tenured faculty thought senior leadership cared about the wellbeing of staff and faculty.  

The BI’s closure and the likelihood that some personnel will be let go brings those perceptions into focus.

It is typical for university faculty nationwide to take a jaundiced view of upper administration. This is the era of the All-Administrative University where upper administration swells as staff and faculty ranks shrink. Yet, the numbers above still compare poorly with those of comparator institutions, and to a 2018 survey of faculty by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A series of recent decisions at UW has hurt morale. These included how well past presidents Sternberg and McGinity performed their jobs, a perception that trustees overreach their authority, a sweep of departmental accounts, reduction in faculty and staff numbers through separation/retirement incentives, increased workload, a staff salary matrix that is 10 years out of date and a new but glitchy computer system that cost $30 million.

Some upper administrators discount low morale and attribute it to ‘change fatigue’. To employees, however, ‘SNAFU fatigue’ may be more accurate.

Making it right

As a result of pushback, President Nichols has postponed closure and announced the fate of the BI will be decided at the January 2019 meeting of the board of trustees. While the upper administration is in a tough spot, it also has an opportunity. It is rare indeed at UW to see a decision reversed as a result of public pressure. When reversals happen, such as the decision to let President Sternberg go, it is rarer still to hear the words: “We made a mistake. We’ve taken input, and here’s a better plan.”

A better plan for the BI was proposed at the November 2018 trustees meeting. Namely that it’s fine for the university to regard biodiversity primarily as a focus for basic research, provided we don’t disband a visible and loyal unit only to set up a task force to see how a new BI could do it better. In a remarkable display of institutional deafness, the administration proposed such a new smaller BI called the Berry Biodiversity Center of Excellence. Only Orwell, on a good day, could conceive of that.

The Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center at the University of Wyoming houses multiple programs, including the Biodiversity Institute. (Donal O’Toole)

Keeping the BI for the next two years is cheap — less than $1 million. Trustees have the money in university reserve accounts. Maintaining the institute would earn the administration credibility. And another two years should give the UW Foundation time to do what it should have done over the past 7 years: aggressively seek other donors. It would also minimize the dangerous perception that, once the UWF separates donors from their gifts, it will ignore their wishes. We saw what happened in the Amy Davis Y Cross affair. We don’t need a replay.

Regardless of the path forward, I suggest one thing the administration might do: Apologize to Bob and Carol Berry. The announcement of closing the BI was made without consulting the Berry family. By all accounts they were hurt, astonished and bewildered by the decision. They likely won’t have anything to do with UW in the future. Nevertheless they merit the courtesy of an apology.

In January 2019 we will learn whether the university’s senior leadership has listened, gotten the message, and reversed course. Earlier this year the administration released the slogan for its new fundraising campaign: “The world needs more cowboys.” Some of us think the world may be in greater need of wisdom, compassion and common sense — although these attributes may be possessed by some cowboys.

As to what we need in UW’s administration right now — well that, gentle reader, I leave to you to figure out.

Donal O’Toole is a resident of Laramie, Wyoming.

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  1. Have Trustees and the University administration not noticed that the Wyoming energy industry is not as popular and profitable any longer as it used to be? That may be an unfortunate truth, but a truth, nevertheless. To put all the university’s eggs into that mineral energy basket may be a bit short sighted. Our bio-diversity may be worth investing in for the future, as well. I retired a long time ago from a UW humanities department which has meanwhile been decimated almost completely. As UW’s breadth decreases, perhaps we ought to take out the “versi” part of the name, and call this the UNITY of Wyoming?

  2. The BI is one of the few programs that engages the public in a compelling way, other than the (non-academic) sports programs. I wonder if the president, board of regents and governor consider that be a good thing or a bad thing? There is nothing so central to the essence of Wyoming as wildlife so there shouldn’t be any controversy limiting the study of state wildlife. On the other hand, the industries who pay most of the bills apparently view wildlife as an impediment to their pursuit of profit. I’m guessing that is the central issue here, and it places the university square into the support of private profit rather than in the pursuit of the foundational purpose of a public university. That is a total submersion of academic integrity to political ends. As an aside, I remember when one benefactor threatened to withdraw his support of sports programs if an educator (Dr. William Ayers) was allowed to speak on campus. Instead of being shunted aside for being too difficult, the state engaged in what was revealed by the courts to be illegal suppression of free speech in order to pacify that benefactor, very different from the actions related to sustaining BI funding to study wildlife.

  3. Out here in the hinterlands, Wild Migrations, Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates is THE BEST thing that UW has given us — (with some exceptions made for opinions of the parents of graduates…) This book speaks for itself and for the quality, importance and relevance of the collaborative work of BI. If I were looking for donors, I would send them a copy as preamble to my funding request!

  4. I’m sick and tired of how politics keeps trying to manage what programs are offered at the University. Don’t any of them appreciate unbiased, scientific study? The politics is such that the board and administration is weighted to make sure the University is a propaganda machine that tries to brain wash students instead of giving them a holistic approach that is based in reality instead of profit.

  5. In my previous comment I neglected to mention the “elephant in the room”. – The Wyoming Legislature. Perhaps Trustee Brown still has some clout there and can fill out their understanding of the advantages of strong academic programs, faculty and research for Wyoming’s future economy?

    Hoping for the best – private donor support depends on that.

    Pete Jorgensen

  6. Although I don’t know much about the BI I do know that the university continues to live up to its name of the University of Bad Decisions, notably the selling of the Y Cross ranch which Benny boy pushed relentlessly. I think he is a million plus.

  7. Thank you Donal!!! And you were nicely measured and temperate in your statements.

    Having served 14 years as a UW Trustee, many years as a Foundation Board Director, and 8 years in the Legislature on the Appropriations Committee, I am appalled by UW Trustees actions over the entire period beginning with the appointment of Dr. Sternberg. Some day I’m sure we will discover what the triggering actions were for such behavior – in the interim we are left with our individual guesses -too bad. Sometimes uninformed guesses become conspiratorial – I hope it is not too late for Governor, Trustees, and Foundation Board members to accept their primary responsibility to assure that the University of Wyoming is the state’s most important factor in educating and preparing our graduates to succeed in the world’s real economy, including activities outside of the fossil fuel. industry.

    Now that I live south of Tuson and have UW Trustees on Google Watch I look forward to better alerts, never thought I would have to worry about that.

    Many thanks to WyoFile, the Branding Iron, CST, and WTE for their interest in the issue.

    ps. How is the UW Journalism program doing?? What would we all know without 1st Amendment?

    All the best,

    Pete Jorgensen

  8. Thanks for the piece, Donal. It’s been disheartening to watch many of the developments at UW in recent years, but I maintain some semblance of hope for the university so long as many faculty (including some in vet sciences) continue to advocate for reason.

  9. Thank you Donal for this brilliant piece. I am always amazed by your courage to say what needs to be said, but even more so for how steadfastedly you have spoken up for UW for so many years (when others of us have gotten tired and faded away). I was always so proud of the BI and its amazing staff. It always seemed to me to be the epidome of UW’s distinctiveness, setting it far apart from other mundane institutions of similar size. I wonder when UW will stop sinking toward mediocracy and strive again for uniqueness and distiction. I hope soon.

  10. Why is it always up to the university to secure funding for projects? Why wouldn’t the BI themselves secure funding? I’m sure there was some work at hand by the parties involved, but you can’t put all the blame on the university. If I was director of such an organization and my group’s funding was mainly from one source that has a clear ending of funds, wouldn’t it be best on me to try and secure future funding?

    Not saying no one in the BI did that, but placing the blame on others and not at least taking a little bit of blame on yourself is not a way to manage an organization. SER didn’t just get all that funding from UW. There are handfuls of folks that made connections to industries and got those donations. As you pointed out, almost every room is named after a corporation. Why couldn’t we have Wyss Foundation Auditorium in the Berry Center?

    I would love to see the BI continue, but if it’s leaders can’t lead, then it’s a sad day to see something end that was doing such great work for people in the community.

    1. This is in response to Kyle, which whom many may agree if they don’t understand how UW works. The fund-raising arm of UW is the UW Foundation. It is headed by Ben Blalock.. It is located in a 3-story edifice beside UW’s football stadium. They have 37 employees per 2018 salary book. Raising money for units on campus is Ben Blalock’s job, and for which he is extremely well paid (UWF will never say how much.. He is paid to do a specific job – rattle the tin cup). And yes, past/present directors of the BI have some responsibility to help do this also. But remember two things. First, past and present BI directors have been scientists – some of the best biology scientists on this campus. If UW’s upper administration insists on scientists running the BI, chances are that they will focus on science-type and educational work. But if they want them to be primarily fund-raisers and duplicate the job of the UWF, they should get someone from the non-profit NGO world to do it. Second, my understanding is – someone correct me if I am wrong – the director is under instructions not to meet donors without involving the UWF. I understand that only two attempts were made in the last few years to solicit money for the BI in person from potential donors.. One was shortly after President Nichols’ arrival. She and Ben Blalock made a pitch to Bob Berry. It didn’t go well. The second was this year, and was after UW announced it would close the BI. Ben Blalock, with impeccably bad timing, tried to set up a meeting with Mr. Berry. Imagine Bob’s response, given the message he just received with no prior warning. So the question is: how hard did UWF try to raise donor funds for the Biodiversity Institute? Did it approach other donors? Or, did it take the lazy approach and assume one donor would eventually come through? The BI has been hanging by a single financial thread for 7 years. How likely is it that UW would allow this to happen to other units it cares about, such as the SER? On the face of it, it looks like one or more people thought that the BI was expendable, regardless of how good a job the employees there did. This sends a message to all employees on campus.

      In my opinion, not very.

      1. I don’t work at the BI, but I hear on good authority from several sources that BI personnel were told they were not allowed to solicit funding. If that is the case, the fallout of the BI closure will rest solely on the shoulders of UW’s upper administration and the UW Foundation. Time to reverse course and keep the BI doors open.

      2. I thought scientists based their opinions on facts and not hear-say?

        I know how the university works. Work at UW as well as a staffer. And it’s always great to hear from faculty that try to tell us how UW works and how to do our jobs. But still, you can’t just pass the buck on someone else. If your organization needed funds, you’d take the time to find what you need to keep the organization going. It’s the same if your research cohort needed funds and the Foundation wasn’t helping you, you’d go out and get a grant or some endowment.

        And I know that they are tons of great scientists over in the BI & all the folks that work in the Berry Center. Work with them on a regular basis and they are some of the best people and minds on campus. No one ever denied or questioned that. But sometimes in tough economic times, all good things must come to an end. You just have to accept that and not blame others.

      3. UWF may not tell you directly how much Mr. Blalock is paid, but a simple search/review of the organization’s “990 Federal Return of Organization Exempt from Tax Return”, Part VII provides that information. While I agree with your position, it does not help to imply there is a conspiracy when the salary information is so readily available – I pulled it up in less than two minutes.

    2. Kyle,
      You may not be aware, but the BI wasn’t allowed to do independent fundraising. In general none of the individual university units are allowed to do their own fundraising. They must rely on the UWF to do it. This is primarily a function of managing donors, Ultimately, fundraising decisions and the direction that funding is sent is prioritized above the level of the BI. But it is important to know that the BI was not in a place where it was ever allowed to approach donors.