By Gregory Nickerson, WyoFile.com
When a new president arrives at the University of Wyoming next year, the head of Wyoming’s sole university will find dozens of newly constructed and remodeled buildings, a robust young crop of top-credentialed professors, an enthusiastic and generous donor base, and a legislature-funded scholarship system that recruits the best students from around the state.
But after years of investment in the Laramie campus, the successor that moves into Old Main will also face budget cuts, calls for better salaries, and the challenge of finding enough money to maintain the 10-year joyride that UW has enjoyed.
In January and February, University of Wyoming trustees in Laramie will select a replacement for President Tom Buchanan, who took the reins of campus in 2005 and guided it through an exceptional period of growth. The new president will be chosen by a confidential — and controversial — search process that will conclude by the end of February.
The construction boom is gratefully applauded by many. Yet there is a growing consensus that investments in buildings need to be matched with investments in people so the university will remain competitive among its peers.
“The facilities are only facilities unless you fill them with great students and faculty members. … Having these side by side creates a great university going forward,” said Ben Blalock, president of the UW Foundation.
And attached to great faculty is the issue of compensation. UW faculty and staff salaries are 12 percent below the average salary for comparable land grant institutions, according to a recent supplemental budget request. The last raise for UW employees was in 2010.
“I’m concerned if this goes on too long, it makes it difficult for us to recruit people we need to bring in, and harder to retain the really good people that can go somewhere else,” said Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources.
“About 20 professors left in the last year because of pay. It’s not a crisis, but a concern,” said university spokesman Chad Baldwin. “Every year that goes by without a salary increase will make (the) problem worse.”
In its supplemental budget request, the university asked for $5 million to increase faculty salaries, but Gov. Mead recommended about $2.4 million in his supplemental budget letter released November 30. The faculty raises are part of an $11 million package for salary increases across state government.
Legislators may balk at approving UW salary raises to the full amount requested, particularly in the face of Gov. Mead’s recommendation for 6 percent cuts to the university’s ongoing operational budget — about $14.7 million. At the same time, lawmakers will consider Gov. Mead’s proposal of a one-time $70 million expenditure toward a new College of Engineering building.
The outcome of these funding questions will wait until the end of the legislative session. In the meantime, students are crowded around study tables in Coe Library, poring over their books in preparation for the end of the semester.
Walking across campus at the University of Wyoming makes one feel that an architect’s vision has been brought to life. Students circle broad walkways around Prexy’s Pasture, winding past limestone buildings, towering spruce trees and landscaped gardens of granite and aspen. Everything fits together.
The tree-lined core of campus is located at 7,200 feet on a high plain between two mountain ranges. Beyond the edge of town, a striking sagebrush expanse stretches for miles in all directions, ending in blue and white peaks on the western horizon. The university’s sub-alpine climate is evident in the heavy down jackets, scarves, and hats worn by students most of the school year.
UW’s outdoor environment contrasts with its sophisticated interior spaces. At any given moment of the day, thousands of students attend lectures in state-of-the-art, digitally-equipped classrooms.
The most notable room on campus is the newly built Jonah Bank Atrium in the College of Business, a multi-story space covered by an immense skylight. It’s bright, professional, and impressive. “Every time you walk into that atrium you are astounded,” said Joel Defebaugh, president of the Associated Students of UW and a junior political science major.
In the atrium — and across the university at large — there is a palpable feeling of growth and momentum.
Presented with massive revenue windfalls from expanded natural gas production and strong natural gas prices between 2000 and 2008, lawmakers in Cheyenne invested historic amounts of money into capital construction and operations at the state’s flagship university. State funding, combined with individual donations and private sector dollars, pushed forward $325 million dollars in facilities upgrades at the university since 2005. Counting projects still under construction and in planning, that number climbs to about $564 million (see graphic).
State money helped boost the university’s base operating budget from $100 million to about $195 million, and remade the campus with over 20 new and remodeled buildings. (See PowerPoint of improved facilities at end of article, or download it here.)
Lawmakers also agreed to invest more than $143 million in matching funds for money raised by the UW Foundation for athletics, facilities, or endowment. This year, for the third time, donations to the UW Foundation exceeded $40 million, bringing the total endowment to $316 million. (See graphic: UW private support totals.)
In all its 125-year history, the university never looked more prosperous.
All the investment helps create a good impression for prospective students on admissions tours, Defebaugh said. “When they go into the renovated buildings their eyes get big. They see the state support and know that this institution is valued within the state.”
Energy and natural resources have been a major emphasis for legislative investment on campus. Six years ago, the legislature founded UW’s School of Energy Resources with the aim of supporting research and training that would benefit Wyoming’s No. 1 industry of energy production, with research emphases on fossil fuels and renewable resources.
Since its founding, the School of Energy Resources (SER) has worked across many departments and disciplines to pursue its mission. It has hired 11 faculty members, and created an undergraduate degree and an MBA for those interested in energy resource management. Director of SER, Mark Northam, said that nearly all current students in the major will have jobs or graduate school acceptances before they graduate.
SER also collaborated with the College of Engineering to reinstitute the petroleum energy program at UW, which had been defunct for some time, but now has 220 majors. SER also provides funding to 150 graduate students in a variety of disciplines.
The base budget for SER is about $20 million per biennium, which was largely supported by money from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, a federal pot of money from a per-ton tax on coal. AML monies are distributed to coal-producing regions, and Wyoming’s share is substantial. But Congress recently cut Wyoming’s flow of AML money, so now SER’s budget will come from Wyoming’s General Fund.
Private sector donors like EnCana Oil & Gas USA, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, and others have contributed generously to SER, with donations totaling about $35 million. Northam says many of those companies now make a greater effort to recruit students in Laramie. “One thing we hear from the energy industry is they like to hire our graduates,” Northam said. “With the work ethic, the Wyoming roots, they are highly employable.”
This January SER will move into a new home in the brand-new Energy Innovation Center, a $25.4 million dollar building boasting research space and a 3-D visualization lab to be used in conjunction with the National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputer in Cheyenne.
While energy education has been a major initiative under President Buchanan, he has also given the arts a high priority. Across campus, the new $36.4 million visual arts building boasts 77,000 feet of space, much of it illuminated by natural light.
“I think that speaks volumes to the state valuing our education — to give a building just for (visual arts),” Defebaugh said.
Biodiversity conservation is another priority for the university. The new $20 million Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center provides multidisciplinary space for study of biological diversity. The center is organized under the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and serves researchers in ecology, genetics, population biology, and molecular biology.
Other major renovations and construction projects include the $60 million College of Business, the $34 million Information Technology building, $49.3 million remodeling and construction of the new Coe Library, the $27 million Wildcatter Suites at War Memorial Stadium, and about $28 million for dormitory renovations. (See graphic: UW Building Projects 2005-2013.)
The UW Foundation recently broke ground on a $20 million Gateway Center, funded completely by private donors with no state support. The center will serve as a new home for the UW Foundation and admissions tours, career services, as well as providing interview space for job recruitment.
The Gateway Center will also house an exhibit on the history of the university, and interactive displays on the role of energy in the Wyoming economy, which will be designed by Advent, LLC, which has designed similar centers for universities in California and Texas.
In addition to the Marian Rochelle family, major donors to the Gateway Center included the Mick and Susie McMurry Foundation. Mick McMurry was one of the discoverers of the Jonah natural gas field in western Wyoming, and the McMurrys are major supporters of the university’s Wyoming Technology Business Center, College of Business, and the stadium reconstruction.
And more renovations are underway, including Performing Arts, White Hall, Half Acre, and Arena Auditorium.
In addition to major remodeling, the university has gradually updated its classroom technology across campus. There are 27 digitally-equipped class rooms in the Classroom Building, 12 in the College of Engineering, and 34 in the new College of Business Building, along with updates to many other high-use rooms across campus. Yet about 182 of the university’s 400 teaching spaces and labs still need improvement, which could cost an estimated $20 to $25 million.
In total, there is 1 million square feet of new interior space on the campus. University spokesman Chad Baldwin noted that the new buildings also create increasing maintenance and energy costs. The same is true for the landscaping that fills nearly every corner of campus. It creates a great impression of the university, but adds costs to the maintenance budget and workforce.
After you’ve caught your breath, there’s more to come.
University construction is set to continue next year, even as the state tries to conserve its budget amid natural gas prices that are gradually recovering from a major drop last spring.
The Enzi Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics building will break ground in spring 2013. A task force appointed by Governor Mead is working on a $100 million plan to remake the College of Engineering into what trustees envision as one of the best engineering schools in the nation. When completed, it will be the largest single project ever built by the university.
State Senator Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) explained the legislature’s goal for the engineering program as, “trying to make sure we had a first-tier university in the areas that are of first priority to Wyoming, which means energy. We are making sure that we are meeting the energy workforce needs moving into the future.”
This year the state can afford one-time spending on selected university projects, but not necessarily take on new ongoing spending to support operations and salaries.
Earlier in 2012, the university submitted a plan to cut $15.6 million from its budget to meet the 8 percent reductions requested by Gov. Mead. Last week (on November 30), the governor said he will now recommend UW trim its budget by just 6 percent, or $14.7 million.
“The boom years are probably over,” said university spokesman Chad Baldwin, citing concerns about reduced coal production and the lower price of natural gas. “At the university we still enjoy strong support from the state and the public, but nobody thinks that it’s going to flow like it did in the decade before 2008. That’s the economic reality of Wyoming right now.”
As the university enters less prosperous times, Phil Roberts, a history professor, says the investments made in buildings will pay off. “If the physical infrastructure is in place, and paid for, it makes it far easier to maintain the quality of the programs through attracting and retaining faculty and students.”
In the upcoming legislative session, discussion will center on the budget cuts recommended by the governor for fiscal year 2014. The opening round of the debates began with the governor’s supplemental budget recommendations, which were released on Friday, November 30. Discussion will continue in the December hearings at the Joint Appropriations Committee and then throughout the session.
UW will have a small army of lobbyists working at the legislature to argue its case, as it has done successfully in the past. Among its administrators are a number of former government officials, from one-time State Sen. Mike Massie (D-Laramie) to Chris Boswell, who was Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s chief of staff.
The 8 percent cuts originally proposed by the university included $6.1 million lopped from support budgets; $2.3 million in non-Hathaway student scholarships; and $6.4 million in personnel costs. Gov. Mead’s revision of the university’s cut (from 8 percent to 6 percent) will adjust down some of those numbers.
“We’re happy to have the reduction in the cut, but it is still a very substantial cut and it will affect folks here,” said Chris Boswell, UW’s vice president for government and community affairs.
Boswell explained that the university will do its best to conduct personnel cuts by attrition. As some staff and faculty leave, they will be replaced on a selective basis. The strategy is an attempt to avoid the layoffs that resulted from the 10 percent cuts Gov. Freudenthal put in place in 2009.
In the face of these cuts, the university has also submitted a supplemental budget request that included $60 million for the Engineering and Applied Science project, and $5 million for merit-based faculty raises for fiscal year 2014.
Last year, the legislature set aside $30 million for the project to revitalize the College of Engineering. The project is roughly estimated to cost up to $105 million, with most of the money coming from the state, and the rest coming from gifts to the UW Foundation. Last week, Gov. Mead recommended the legislature support the engineering project with $40 million in Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funds and $30 million from the General Fund. The AML funds will come from money previously appropriated to UW’s coal gasification project with GE, which is currently on hold.
The issue of faculty salary raises is a crucial one for President Tom Buchanan. In a report prepared for an August meeting of the trustees, he stated, “The most valuable resources at UW are the people who carry out its mission… Failure to maintain competitive salaries and benefits leaves the institution vulnerable to the loss of some of its best employees and leaders.”
Buchanan noted that faculty last received a raise in 2010. If the legislature does not follow Gov. Mead’s recommendation to provide about $2.4 million in raises to UW employees, fiscal year 2014 will be the fourth year without a raise for university employees.
Money for raises is available due to an unexpected $16.9 overpayment of state employee health insurance. Gov. Mead has proposed putting $11 million of that windfall toward salary raises in many agencies, divided into $2.5 million for one-time merit-based bonuses and $8.5 million in regular raises. UW’s raises would come from the $8.5 million portion.
The university’s share of the raises would be about $2.4 million, or about a 1.5 percent increase in salaries. That would help close the gap between UW’s pay and the average salaries at comparable institutions. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Boswell said.
Gov. Mead’s recommendation to raise salaries at the same time cuts are being made might seem counterintuitive, but Boswell says there is precedent for state government making such a move. UW’s last employee raise came in 2010, while Gov. Freudenthal’s 10 percent budget cuts from 2009 remained in effect.
The presidential search process is moving forward at a rapid pace. Trustees are currently recruiting candidates with the help of the search consulting firm Greenwood/Asher and Associates. In December and January the search committee will evaluate candidates, conduct secondary interviews, and make a selection.
To date, the trustees have elected to withhold the names of candidates. According to the trustees, “a ‘confidential search’ is necessary to encourage ‘sitting’ presidents or other highly qualified applicants who, for many reasons, require confidentiality before they will consider submitting their applications for the position. This is an increasingly common format for presidential searches at major universities.”
The confidential search has met with skepticism, particularly from members of the press. The Casper Star-Tribune, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and the Associated Press recently filed a lawsuit for the candidate names to be released.
Meanwhile, the search committee has collected stakeholder input and created a presidential profile listing some of the qualities the university is looking for. Some of the attributes include a deep understanding of Wyoming and the university’s role in the state, an ability to connect with Wyoming residents and communities, and the skills needed to communicate with multiple constituencies across the state.
Mark Northam said of one of the questions asked of candidates should concern how they would ensure continuing excellence in the face of a declining budget. “You have to ask that question because that’s what we’re facing,” he said.
For the 2015-16 biennium, the legislature has asked the university to maintain the cuts for fiscal year 2014. That would mean a two-year cut of $31.5 million, and a significant budget challenge for the next president.
Boswell said the level of state support for the university over the past decade is unparalleled anywhere in the country. That support will likely continue, particularly for capital construction. But if the recent operational budget cuts are any indication, UW’s ongoing budget will be squeezed. “Candidates for the office will recognize and appreciate the (past) state support, and walk in with eyes wide open that this is a time of budget cuts,” Boswell said.
Asked what students are looking for in the next UW president, Defebaugh said, “Students want, generally, a Tom Buchanan,” citing the administrator’s track record in supporting academics, athletics, and programming. “(Students) want what is already in place to continue to get better. With this building boom, we are in a place where we are on a pathway for greater success. We need someone who will continually pursue that.”
This week, student government will hear the first reading of a student body resolution asking that academic freedom be considered in the presidential selection. The resolution is a response to the Bill Ayers and Carbon Sink episodes that marred Buchanan’s tenure.
The presidential profile does list a requirement that the candidate possess: “A strong commitment to academic freedom and maintaining an environment of appreciation of and support for diverse points of view…”
The drive to increase faculty salaries will continue after Buchanan leaves the university. “The next president will be making the case to elected officials that faculty is a priority just as much as buildings,” Baldwin said.
If experience is any indication, a lot of the university president’s job will involve making the case for increased state support from lawmakers in Cheyenne.
“Success in the position starts with having a good relationship with the legislature and the governor,” Baldwin said.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile, and will cover the 2013 legislative session in Cheyenne. He spent two years studying in UW’s History Building and the new Coe Library. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.