Saturday, October 6, 2012

Part 2: Wyoming legislators as art critics & bullies

Wyoming’s constitution gives executive powers to the governor, legislative powers to the legislature. Seems like elementary civics but a distinction often ignored by zealous legislators. The governor is responsible for implementing the law and policy. The legislature is supposed to be a deliberative assembly acting not individually but collectively to pass, amend, and repeal laws. They don’t implement policy nor do they manage any agency much less the University.

When UW decided first to display and later to destroy a controversial sculpture, the Governor had no input in the decision nor was he or his staff consulted but some Wyoming legislators became heavily involved, giving real meaning to the term “bully pulpit.” In July 2011, UW announced a sculpture called Carbon Sink would be displayed on the campus. “Warmer winters allow the pine bark beetle to thrive and as a direct consequence vast tracts of forests in the Rockies are dying,” UW’s news release quoted artist Chris Drury. “So I am about to make a large and very black work on campus, using coal and charred, dead tree trunks in the shape of a whirlpool spiraling down into the earth.”

Before anyone saw the sculpture, the energy lobby went after the University for daring to create a dialogue about climate change. Immediately a group of legislators who often carry industry’s bags weighed in. These weren’t just any legislators but those with clout. Public records show they bullied President Buchanan with threats to reduce funding and to create a second four-year school.

First was Gillette Republican Tom Lubnau, the House Majority Floor Leader, who threatened UW’s funding. “I read, also, with amazement, the choice of sculpture for the University of Wyoming campus.  *** I would also like to inform you I am considering introducing legislation to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”

Lubnau emailed colleagues accusing UW of “biting the hand that feeds,” suggesting consideration of developing additional four-year schools if UW doesn’t get the message.

Kermit Brown, a Republican representing Albany County who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told UW official Don Richards the school’s “hypocrisy is maddening.” Brown also threatened UW with a competing four-year institution. “This sculpture…almost seems to mandate that we have a second four-year school in this state open toward the interest of those who make this state successful.” Brown warned a UW Trustee, “We are going to get to the bottom of who knew what and when they knew it.” He threatened reduced funding. “Even if the University does not know where its bread is buttered, the State does.”

Elaine Harvey, chair of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee emailed UW, “It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks in that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university.”

Rep. Greg Blikre, of the House Revenue Committee, accused UW of sponsoring art “that trashes the very industries that provide nearly all the income in Wyoming for the State and for the University.” Rep. Norine Kasperik, of the Minerals, Business and Economic Development, asked UW to reconsider displaying the sculpture. “I support the artist's right to create it and also the University's right to refuse to display it.”

The Appropriations Committee then intimidatingly gathered “a detailed summary of all funds” spent by UW on artwork and “descriptions of the artwork.” The controversy cost the University. Chris Boswell, who later took Richards’ job, told Wyoming Public Radio, “Governor Mead had proposed a $2 mm dollar appropriation for the Cultural Trust Fund…there was a very simple motion to delete the $2mm from the Governor’s budget, and it passed without discussion.” (

The threats were real and persistent and included the withdrawal of a financial gift from another legislator who said because of “the anti-coal actions I won’t be donationing (sic) to UW at this time.”

President Buchanan initially defended academic freedom. Tomorrow-UW’s response evolves.

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