Friday, October 5, 2012

Part 1: Wyoming's mining industry vs. freedom of expression at UW

The public records act is a fascinating tool, offering a picture of government decision-making otherwise unavailable to citizens who rely on public statements made by public officials. It proved useful in digging into the controversy stirred recently when University of Wyoming officials destroyed a sculpture that had drawn the ire of influential donors and legislators.

My public records request produced massive amounts of documents weaving a troubling story including threats from legislators and the mining industry. The issue is more important than UW’s decision to destroy a sculpture known as Carbon Sink, which raises significant questions of freedom of expression. The University cannot address those issues until it addresses more foundational questions.

Over the years, with the steadfast insistence of the University, Wyoming made a choice. It would remain one of the only states in the country to have just one state funded four-year school. There would be no competition allowing education consumers to choose one school over another. That elevates the role and responsibility of policymakers to make certain our university is a place of excellence where students learn not what to think but how to think.

Tom Buchanan has announced he’ll resign at the end of this academic year. The University is beginning the process of selecting his successor. This is the time to ask how much influence the University should give to those with political and economic clout? Bluntly, if the mining industry has sway sufficient to force censorship of art, shouldn’t we assume they are also influencing the school’s research on issues ranging from fracking to climate change?

Finding an answer implicates not only the University but also the legislature. As the state’s single four-year school of higher education, UW relies heavily on its relationship with the legislature. The conduct of certain legislators in the destruction of Carbon Sink demonstrates a lack of discipline on their part and an attitude of individual self-importance destructive to a healthy relationship between the legislature and the University. The legislature won’t open that conversation. Others must.

This series examines records provided by the University and actions taken by President Buchanan and others. It discloses the threats made by legislators and the energy industry coercing the University to censor a piece of art they found objectionable. Finally, the series examines the role of certain legislators. Just as the state has but one university, it has, for any practical purpose, one political party. That’s a prescription for the kind of abuse of power evident in this case.

The controversy began with a July 12, 2011, announcement that British artist Chris Drury would create a sculpture for the campus. Drury uses the environment to make artistic statements. Carbon Sink used beetle-kill logs interspersed with coal in a vortex to create a message about climate change. UW’s announcement said, “It explores the connection between Wyoming’s strong oil and coal industries and climate change, which is contributing to pine beetle kill.” But the energy industry is allergic to messages acknowledging climate change.
 The next day, Bruce Hinchey, a former Speaker of the Wyoming House who now heads the Wyoming Petroleum Association, emailed industry leaders and legislator-friends stirring unhappiness over the sculpture. From Drury’s July 22, 2011 blog, “By day three of construction, the mining industry was accusing the university of ingratitude towards one of its main benefactors – in what some have seen as a veiled threat to cut funding.” 
Marion Loomis, Wyoming Mining Association head, fired an email to Don Richards, UW’s vice president for government affairs. “Don, what kind of crap is this? It got worse quickly.  Loomis told reporters, “They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry." Kelly Mader, vice-president for State Government Relations for Peabody Energy (a former Wyoming legislator), threatened, “Our $2 million donation to the University is now in question.”

Then legislators loyal to the causes of the energy lobby jumped into the fray. More tomorrow.

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