Plato wrote The Republic 350 years BCE, expressing a decidedly negative view of the arts. Plato thought art often misrepresented Greek heroes and ideas. That violated his notion of the ideal. He didn’t believe free people had the right to artfully critique its leaders and those with influence. Aristotle disagreed. He thought the expression of ideas and opinions through art was a critical element of a healthy society.
Plato vs. Aristotle. The University of Wyoming takes Plato’s side. In so doing, Wyoming’s only four-year school abdicated the right to be considered a university. In order to understand how horrifying this new round of censorship is, you must understand what a real university is supposed to be. The classic definition of a university includes the assurance that the institution will provide an environment that facilitates free thought. A university is supposed to be a place where inquiry by students and faculty is an essential element of the mission, where scholars have freedom to teach, learn, and communicate ideas, including those that cause influential and powerful contributors and political groups to squirm.
Academic freedom is essential to an institution’s claim to be a university. Academic freedom, i.e. the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members, is essential to the growth of the faculty, the students and the community they serve. Art is fundamental to expressing thoughts and ideas in a free society and must, therefore, be allowed, and even encouraged, especially in a university.
The University of Wyoming is no longer a university by any of those measures. Clearly that does not trouble the governor or others in charge. They are the censors of free expression, not its protectors. Over the years censorship has become so prevalent that it has become a chief characteristic of the school. Censorship is more emblematic of the school than is Steamboat. The most recent example is the decision to remove a sculpture that the powerful Wyoming mining industry and their legislators didn’t like.
The art, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around,” was a 36-foot-diameter vortex of pine-beetle killed logs set atop a bed of coal. The artist, a Brit named Chris Drury, said his creation depicted the connection between Wyoming's extractive industries and damage wrought by climate change, which experts say is responsible for a devastating pine beetle infestation across the West.
The past tense describes the sculpture because the un-University of Wyoming destroyed it after being cowed by threats from legislators and influential folks with ties to the mining industry. The larger logs have apparently been removed to UW’s “bone yard,” where scraps that may have a future use are stored. The smaller logs were sent to the Laramie dump. The coal, rather ironically, was burned in the school’s power plant, pointedly increasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and contributing to climate change. The site on which the sculpture once sat was sodded over. It’s now just a bad memory for those who hold sway over UW.
The school, formerly known as a university, will provide all sorts of nonsensical explanations but once again, as this institution has done so many times, they sold out academic freedom and the principles of a university to the highest bidder.
One of the coal industry’s most influential legislators is Tom Lubnau of Gillette. Lubnau says UW shouldn’t countenance art that may be interpreted as anti-mining because the state derives so much of its budget from mining. The tail wags Tom’s dog. Before Wyoming became their colony, the people, not the mining companies, owned the mineral resources. Now they take them as they please, send us the few measly bucks the law requires and make their fortunes. Oh yeah, sure…those “few measly bucks” add up to hundreds of millions but are so far less than the value extracted as to be relatively measly.
And for that they bought themselves a university. Wyoming…like no other place on earth!