LARAMIE – The University of Wyoming has instituted a hiring freeze, Acting President Neil Theobald announced in a Wednesday email to university employees.
“Effective immediately” no UW-funded hiring of faculty or staff can be made without Theobald’s written approval.
That came after Gov. Mark Gordon told Theobald in a letter that “we will have to curb expenditures dramatically and probably for some time to come.”
Theobald said UW has suspended three dean searches, even though the university is already in “the finalist stage” in its search for deans for College of Arts & Sciences and the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“These searches have not been canceled, just paused in place, and can proceed when timely,” Theobald said. “Last week, I also asked Provost (Kate) Miller to provide me with a prioritized list of current faculty searches. Specifically, I asked if there are undergraduate courses that we cannot offer without hiring faculty. We are actively prioritizing critical and necessary faculty hires.”
While the Legislature gave UW its standard budget for the upcoming biennium, the university’s lobbyist, Meredith Asay, told trustees last week to expect the Legislature to change its position on UW funding.
“It is very likely that budgets will change in the next biennium, and we don’t have clear guidance on what that will mean yet,” she said. “The expectation is that there will be budget reductions, but it’s unclear at this point how those will come about and when those will come about.”
With legislators planning a special session to address the COVID-19 pandemic and funding from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, Trustee Kermit Brown – a former Wyoming Speaker of the House – said university officials will face a chaotic challenge in handling the legislative special session.
“I think there’s something like $2.5 billion that’s coming to the state from the feds, and this thing is going to get weird and wild,” he said. “I predict there’s going to be some stuff related to us that’s going to get stone-cold killed, and you’re going to see other things take off and go into overdrive. We’re not going to be able to get things done as quickly as (legislators) want.
“The other thing that’s going to be weird is that (UW officials are) not going to be able to be in the hallways with easy access to these legislators to lobby on the various issues,” Brown said. “It’s going to take a lot of work on their part, probably on the telephone, with individual legislators on individual issues. It’s just going to be the wildest, weirdest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Meanwhile, 914 University of Wyoming students have filed to receive money from an emergency fund the university has set up to help students pay for basic needs, like housing, food and technology access.
Individual students are limited to receiving $1,000 from the pool of money, called the Pokes Make the Difference Student Emergency Fund.
“The stories I’ve heard from students are just heartbreaking … threats of having their heat cut off and the like,” Theobald said last week during the trustees’ meeting.
A $250,000 donation from the UW Foundation formed the basis for the emergency fund. Since then, the university has continued to solicit donations from across the globe while matching those donations with additional money from nearly 700 donors and funds from the discretionary budget of the President’s Office.
“As of this morning, with $552,000 available to award, that will not cover the total requested amount. That’s why we’re continuing the fundraising effort,” UW spokesman Chad Baldwin told the Boomerang in a Wednesday email.
During last week’s trustees meeting, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Kim Chestnut said that for the last two months of the semester, students who live in university-owned housing will receive a 20% discount on their rental prices.
The closure of campus has meant most student employees are no longer working. However, UW has continued to pay all employees, including non-students.
“We have had no layoffs. We’ve found other work across the university for our employees to do,” Theobald said.
With the move to virtual learning leading to increased concerns about self-harm and suicide, Chestnut told the trustees that UW has worked to become responsive to those concerns through the UWYO Cares program, a team at the university responsible for assessing, responding to and evaluating the safety and welfare of students who may present concerns of any nature.
“We are really working to attend to that issue and connect students as readily as possible,” Chestnut said. “We’ve worked with Academic Affairs so that faculty can begin to submit UWYO Cares reports about students directly. If there’s a student who hasn’t logged into their courses or there’s some type of concern about their participation in coursework, they can automatically send out a report to the UWYO Cares team so we can reach out to the student directly. There has been a decently high volume of that.”
UW officials have indicated the possibility that campus life might not return to normal by the start of the upcoming fall semester.
“Our residence halls are scheduled to open four months from (April 16), and between now and the trustees’ May meeting, we’ll be redoubling our efforts and bring (the trustees) our best thinking about how best to proceed,” Theobald said.
Vice Provost Tami Benham-Deal said officials within the Office of Academic Affairs have “already begun discussing potential scenarios for what could potentially be a very different start to the upcoming academic year and what the long-term impact of COVID-19 may have on large public gatherings, like large lecture classes.”
In his Wednesday email announcing the hiring freeze, Theobald said, “Our stated goal is to reopen this fall with rules and regulations informed by ongoing data analysis and research.”
UW has extended enrollment deadlines for the fall.
“We already recognize that some of our Wyoming citizens find themselves unemployed due to COVID, and by extending this window for admission into graduate courses, some of them may be able to redirect their career paths or work toward advanced degrees,” Benham-Deal said. “We’re also looking into the possibility of creating some incentives for innovation into new courses, particularly surrounding public health and health literacy and some of the issues that are really prevalent today.”