Legislators want to study UW governance

LARAMIE — With numerous legislators expressing concerns on Friday about the University of Wyoming’s leadership, both the House and Senate voted to have the Legislative Service Office to hire a “third party consultant” to examine UW’s governance structure and compare it to the “best practices of other land grant universities’ governance structures that could be adopted to maximize efficient operations.”

The votes came as a last-minute amendment to the state’s budget bill, with the proposal’s backers expressing a vague lack of confidence in UW’s leadership, especially in the wake of former President Laurie Nichols’s 2019 ouster.

The university is almost sure to see more turnover in the presidency this year, with Acting President Neil Theobald no longer being considered by the trustees as a permanent replacement for Nichols.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions on the Joint Education Committee and … with the executive branch about how we could potentially do university governance better,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, who’s a professor at the university.

Rothfuss sponsored the amendment and Laramie’s other Senator, Republic Glenn Moniz, co-sponsored the amendment. Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, was also a co-sponsor and the there was little debate before the Senate voted for it 22-6. Several Senators, including key JAC members, changed their votes to “aye” at the last moment.

The amendment brought more discussion in the House, with its backers fairly direct in their criticism of current university leadership.

“The optics have just looked bad,” said Rep. Tom Crank, R-Kemmerer, who sponsored the House version of the amendment. He repeatedly stated he wanted to “find out what happened” with the Nichols decision.

“I live up in Crook County,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance. “There’s not a whole lot of interaction between ourselves and the university, but I’m hearing it back home. Folks are worried about what’s going on with their university and what the future looks like down there.”

Both versions of the amendments call on the study to find ways “to facilitate shared governance, reduce bureaucracy, promote efficiencies and meet the university’s land grant mission.”

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, is a professor at UW and said that shared governance “is an incredibly important element of how land-grant universities are supposed to operate and it’s certainly been … a very serious concern in a place where the turnover in presidents has been enormous in the last five years.”

Other legislators in the House were also more vocal in defending the board of trustees and administrators.

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said the trustees “are constantly trying to maximize your utility and do their job as efficiently as possible.”

“You’ve just go to sit in and listen to them,” Nicholas said.

Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, said the amendment was an overreach akin to “looking into the governmental structure of our local municipalities.”

The House and Senate versions of the amendment do have some differences, so the specific details of the study will still need to negotiated through a “conference committee” — a heavy-hitting group of legislators tasked with working out the differences in the budget bill — before the legislation goes to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

The Senate’s version would take up to $500,000 from the university’s block grant and use it to fund the governance study. The House version did not include an appropriation.

A number of other proposed amendments also took aim at the governance of UW, including an amendment brought by most members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that died on a 16-14 vote. That amendment would have required the trustees to spend at least $34 million of their block grant on the College of Agriculture and at least $22 million of their block grant on the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, referenced a common talking point of his regarding the university’s budget: The Morrill Act of 1862, a federal law that led to the establishment of landgrant institutions, including UW.

Hicks lamented the funding cuts made to the College of Agriculture in 2016 and quoted the Morrill Act’s language that states that land-grant institutions like UW should “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, teased her colleagues for what she described as an “absurd amendment.”

“To try to dictate to (UW) the substance of what they do best— which is delivering education— based on an act of Congress. The feds. Don’t we hate them? I thought we hated it when they tell us what to do, especially when it comes to educating our children,” Nethercott quipped. “In 1862, they were trying to tell us how to educate our kids.”

Nethercott also noted that Hicks’s sentiment seemed to ignore another clause in the Morrill Act that says agriculture and the mechanic arts and military should be taught “without excluding other scientific and classical studies.”

“If you want to rely on this wisdom from before women had the right to vote, let’s go ahead and look at the language without cherry-picking it,” Nethercott said. Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said the Hicks amendment address a non-existent problem.

“I have some problems with the way the current leadership of the university functions,” Scott said. “But it has been growing and improving steadily. All the presidents have left behind a better institution. … An amendment like this might be necessary if we were dealing with a declining institution, but we’re not. We’re dealing with an institution that is thriving and improving and we can all see the visible fruits of that improvement.”