Saturday, November 1, 2014

Out-of-staters on the UW Board? Why?

Article 6, Section 15 of Wyoming’s Constitution establishes qualifications for election or appointment to public office. “No person except a qualified elector shall be elected or appointed to any civil or military office in the state.”
On election day voters will be asked whether the University of Wyoming board of trustees should be exempt from that 125 year-old requirement. The legislature proposes allowing the governor to appoint non-residents to twenty percent of the board chairs.
This may be as bad an idea as it was to have originally located our only university in the far corner of such a vast state, isolating it geographically from most Wyoming residents. That geographic isolation may partially explain the alienation so many residents feel about the school. But that decision, as they say, is cast in concrete as well as enshrined in the Wyoming Constitution. Choices about qualifications for trustees, on the other hand, are simply in the constitution.
Given current questions about the direction the University is taking, this isn’t the time to open the door to big-moneyed, influential out-of-state interests in managing the affairs of the university.
Proponents of the amendment argue this change gives Wyoming an opportunity to add wealthy business leaders from other parts of the United States to the UW governing body. The say there are a lot of influential, bright people beyond our borders whose expertise would enhance the University’s national prestige.
Those are the very arguments that persuade me this amendment should be defeated. The university already suffers from the weight of influential people moving the school in a direction that serves selfish economic interests. I don’t see the governor and the school’s leadership searching the country for the best and the brightest academicians or people with genuine interests in making the school a place that respects academic freedom.
They will do what Willy Sutton did. Go where the money is. The University in its current mindset will likely fill these positions with big name, high-dollar people with ties to the mining industry and the polluter class. They will be people who further the goals of the current leadership to keep Wyoming a safe place for those who deny climate change and seek to keep the extractive industries on life-support.
The most important job trustees have is selecting a top-notch university president and holding him or her accountable. What would appointees from out-of-state add to that mission that cannot be better accomplished by people who have made enough of a commitment to Wyoming to actually call it home?
The complaint most widely heard across the state is that the University of Wyoming is not sufficiently connected to the rest of the state, that it exhibits an insufficient interest in assisting communities with the real problems that confront them. It is hard for me to see how adding non-residents to the board of trustees will not widen that perception while giving it greater credence.
UW historian Phil Roberts calls it “reverse snobbery,” i.e. an indication from the legislature that Wyoming people are simply incapable of managing the school’s affairs without out-of-state genius.
Arguing against the amendment causes me some discomfort. I find it objectionable when longtime residents reject the ideas of newcomers out-of-hand. But this situation is different.
The language of the amendment does not require the appointee ever resided in Wyoming, much less attended the University of Wyoming. These are people who may never have lived in Wyoming. If they did, they made a choice to build their businesses and lives somewhere else.
The governor should be looking in another direction, setting sites set on a wider range of Wyoming people who know the state, have made a life commitment to it, and grasp what it means to connect the university to a wider set of personal and professional aspirations.

Adding non-resident members to the UW board is an answer to questions that shouldn’t even be asked. Wyoming people can best answer the questions that should be asked about the University.

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