A family-owned daily newspaper serving Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming since 1949

The university ideal

May 17, 2017 - By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

UW's unavoidable cutbacks erode fulfillment of the land-grant mission

After much discussion and anticipation, the University of Wyoming this week confirmed dozens of job layoffs and the demise of several academic programs.

Budget-cutting opportunities that did not include these two categories were exhausted last year, but the fiscal crisis wasn't. With available public funding drastically reduced, the university, like so many other public entities, has had to resort not just to the scalpel, but to the ax.

This probably wasn't still-new university president Laurie Nicholls signed on for when she became UW's first female chief executive a couple of years back. No one wants to become a university president because of a fervent desire to shrink and slash. Nichols and the university have developed a cogent rationale for the cutbacks. It is understandable and defensible - but it's also difficult.

One of the jobs, generally speaking, of the state land-grant university is to provide broad education to everybody in the state who wants it. Almost by definition, the lead public university in any state is supposed to be all things to all people, or as close as it can possibly get. The objectives are inclusiveness and opportunity.

When Bob Sternberg, the short-tenured easterner who was two presidents before Nicholls, arrived in Wyoming, he came to Fremont County for a few meet-and-greet sessions. A member of our newspaper staff asked him at the time how he perceived the differences between the The University of Wyoming, and the high-octane, superschools that he was accustomed to. Sternberg had affiliations with Stanford and Yale earlier in his career.

He had a ready answer, and it made sense. UW and Yale both are universities, he said, but Wyoming has a very different purpose from his mighty Ivy League alma mater. The land-grant university must be there for everyone. It is supported by everyone's taxes. It must admit virtually anyone from the state who applies, and it is strives to offer majors and degrees in virtually any field a student chooses. The elite schools try to do that final element as well, but they have their choice of students, professors, families who can pay in enormous tuitions, donors who can lavish giant contributions on the school, and wealthy alumni who never stop giving.

When Sternberg left Yale, for example, the fabled Ivy League had 2,000 course offerings and a permanent endowment of $22 billion - all private money.

"No state university has that," Sternberg said to our interviewer. "We rely on the taxpayers."

As such, the land-grant university is viewed almost as a government service in the same vein as the transportation department or the public health nurse. Citizens of the state have the expectation and the right to a low-cost, comprehensive educational opportunity at the public university. It is embedded in the Wyoming constitution - a state constitutional right, in other words.

That mandate makes job losses and program cuts both difficult to carry out and difficult to accept. No one is arguing that the university has to cut back. The funding situation demands it.

Unavoidably, determining how to do it involves an element of cruelty. That's because the value of an academic program cannot be measured strictly on the number of students enrolled. Russian language studies was not introduced as a major program at the University of Wyoming because the administration and the trustees thought it would attract hundreds of majors each year. It was introduced because those administrators and trustees at the time wanted - felt obliged, in fact - to expand the opportunities of the state university.

Looking through the list of available courses, there is a measure of comfort in seeing all the things the university offers, even when students looking at the course list understand that they would only take about 16 of those courses.

The University of Wyoming still is a place of many possibilities. Those possibilities are fewer now than they were a week ago. Inevitable as they were, the cuts do erode UW's demonstration of the public university ideal. When the economy starts rolling again, restoring the University of Wyoming to a fuller realization of that ideal would be an admirable priority.

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