The University of Wyoming will soon have a new face on the Board of Trustees that many Wyomingites already know well.
Laramie resident Kermit Brown served as Albany County’s House District 14 representative in the Wyoming Legislature from 2005-2016. In that time, Brown served as House majority leader from 2013-2014 and speaker of the House from 2015-2016. Following Gov. Matt Mead’s appointment and the Senate’s consent, Brown is expected to begin serving a six-year term on the UW Board of Trustees at its March meeting.
Serving on the board was an opportunity Brown couldn’t pass up, he said.
“Being a trustee of the university is such an honor that I just couldn’t say no,” Brown said. “It’s something I’ve thought about since before I went to law school.”
Brown, senior partner at Laramie law firm Brown & Hiser, LLC, graduated from the UW College of Law in 1973 — an experience the Casper native said changed his life.
“I came down here as a first-generation (student) to come to college,” he said. “I really, really struggled, but the university is really responsible for who I am today.”
Now taking the responsibility of one of 12 members of UW’s leadership board, Brown and his fellow trustees face some of the most significant challenges in the institution’s history. UW continues to struggle through a $42 million reduction in state funding. Before those cuts are over, UW’s leaders expects to lose anywhere from 250-400 positions with employee workloads already significantly increased. And plans to build a Science Initiative facility are intact, but at risk.
Making the case to not make further reductions to UW’s funding won’t be a clear-cut case, Brown said. As someone with experience in Wyoming’s Legislature, he said he knows not all lawmakers prioritize funding for UW.
“There are people in this state that say, ‘We don’t need that good of a university, we really don’t need the prestige our school has, we don’t need to fund it,’ and I’ve struggled with that for a long time,” he said.
Brown said he wants legislators to consider how detrimental sacrificing UW’s quality could be to the state’s future. Wyoming’s young people often leave the state to pursue job opportunities or a different living environment, and its percent of residents with bachelor’s degrees ranks 40th in the nation. As the state continues to try to diversify its economy to be less reliant on mineral extraction industries, Brown said UW must play a critical role.
“You get a big employer somewhat interested in the state, and you say, ‘Alright, come take a look,’” he said. “Then they fly in and say, ‘OK, where’s the workforce?’ Well, there’s no workforce here or the workforce that’s here isn’t properly suited for the work that needs to be done. I’m one of those guys that thinks there are a lot of college graduates out there doing amazing things.”
As he waits for his first official sit down with the Board of Trustees, Brown said he’s not familiar enough with all the internal initiatives to comment specifically.
“I like what I see up there but I can’t discuss specific issues yet,” Brown said. “I should probably voice my opinion there before I voice it in the newspaper.”
One of Brown’s assets as board member could be his legislative experience, he said. Gov. Matt Mead’s appointments passed over Laramie resident Mike Massie for a second term. Brown said he wouldn’t speculate as to why Mead made that choice, but acknowledged it’s possible he could help effectively advocate for funding UW in the Legislature. Though the makeup of the Legislature is likely to change to some degree as lawmakers’ terms expire, he said he thinks he could still have influence on those who know him.
“Right now, I could go over to the Legislature and be on a first name basis with almost everyone,” he said. “It won’t take long until that will bleed off, so how much good I do the university in that role, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
During his time in the House, Brown said he’s had many experiences fighting to keep UW funding in place when others wanted to change course. When a budget bill that included $5 million to fund renovations for the Arena-Auditorium were removed in the House, Brown said he had to make a desperate attempt to amend the bill on third reading to reinsert the allocation. Though he said lawmakers don’t like adding amendments on final readings, Brown held up the vote to propose including the funding.
“I was begging, holding on by my fingernails, and we got that passed on the last amendment on third reading,” he said. “That was one time I was really able to do something for the university that I really believe in.”
Not everyone has agreed with UW’s investments in new facilities in recent years, but Brown said it is something he’s supported. With a K-12 education funding crisis bleeding into every financial decision legislators make, Brown said he’s not sure if they can protect the Science Initiative allocation. But he said he’ll continue to make his case to lawmakers and the community.
“As our state sits here, it might be 50 years before we build another building on campus,” he said. “We’re trying to make hay while the sun shines. We’ve got a chance to do it.”
Building relationships across the state are an area he hopes he could help begin as a board member, Brown said. Whether it’s between UW and community colleges, UW and industry or deans of colleges and Legislative committees, he said he hopes to see the state connected to the university. But Brown said it would be up to UW to extend the olive branch.
“I think the university has to go more than halfway to meet and have a presence out in the rest of the state,” he said. “Mostly because we’re geographically challenged, we just have to make up for that by going the extra mile. … It’s hard but the university has to assume the burden of establishing and maintaining the relationship.”
While Brown believes strongly in the value of vocational education at UW, he said he understands the need to provide liberal arts education to the students across the state and wants to maintain those programs. Whatever the program they choose, Brown said he has an overarching goal for all of Wyoming’s young people that pursue an education at UW.
“I hope kids in Wyoming can come down here and have a good time, get a good education and leave and be successful wherever they go,” he said. “But if the university doesn’t do anything else for them, that they leave here as critical thinkers, and that they never lose that edge of critical thinking. That’s what I’m all about.”