University of Wyoming Vice President for Research and Economic Development Ed Synakowski said he does not yet have a “mature understanding of the recommendations” that will be proposed to dissolve the Biodiversity Institute this year.
UW announced a surprise closure in July of the Biodiversity Institute, which was founded in 2012 and was funded by private donations from Robert and Carol Berry.
As the Berrys’ initial funding began to dry up, UW announced the center would be closed in December.
At the UW Board of Trustees’s Thursday meeting, Synakowski discussed the process the Biodiversity Institute’s “transition team” is undergoing to move some of the Biodiversity Institute’s programming to other departments. Some programs are also expected to be eliminated.
Despite the institute’s closure, Synakowski said UW will not roll back its work in that branch of science.
“What’s not in question here is the university’s strong and enduring commitment to biodiversity science,” he said.
Trustee Michelle Sullivan said it’s of “deep importance” that the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center continues to focus on work related to biodiversity science.
Since the announcement of the Biodiversity Institute’s closure, Synakowski said the university has received numerous comments from community members “primarily regarding the benefits of the citizen science program and the benefits to ecology students.”
With little success at getting answers, Faculty Senate Chairman Donal O’Toole grilled Synakowski about the circumstances surrounding the Biodiversity Institute’s closure.
“How did this happen?” an incredulous O’Toole asked the vice president.
“From a faculty perspective, this thing just kind of came out of the blue for a lot of us,” he said. “It puzzled us because this is a very visible part of the university. A lot of us considered it a very successful enterprise.”
Namely, O’Toole wanted Synakowski to answer:
— Has UW lost all future donations from the Berrys, whose private funding backed the programs, as a result of the Biodiversity Institute’s closure?
— Was Biodiversity Institute’s interim director, Gary Beauvais, informed that the institute faced an impending funding shortage and given any guidance to seek out more funding?
— Why was the funding source for the Biodiversity Institute’s staff never transitioned away from relying on the Berry’s donations?
Trustee John McKinley apparently wasn’t comfortable with that line of questioning. Cutting off Synakowski from answering, he told O’Toole it would be “premature to have an oral response” to O’Toole’s concerns until Synakowski and his team present their dissolution plan at the board’s November meeting.
Furthermore, McKinley suggested some of the circumstances surrounding the Institute’s closure perhaps should only be discussed behind closed doors.
In 2007, the Berrys donated $10 million to UW and prompted the construction of the 40,000-square-foot Berry Center, which opened in 2011. The Biodiversity Institute was born out a biodiversity-focused task force created by then-UW President Tom Buchanan.
In 2011, the task force recommended the Biodiversity Institute be established to consolidate the biodiversity-related research that had been scattered among different areas of the university.
Early on, the task force acknowledged that fundraising was being done “without any official or strategic organization or planning.”
“A more formal approach to fundraising needs to be put into place to enhance cooperation between the fledgling (Biodiversity Institute) and the Foundation,” the task force reported in 2011.
In an Aug. 6 email on the faculty listserv, former Biodiversity Institute Director Carlos Martinez del Rio says the Biodiversity Institute’s closure meant “once again, a top-down opaque decision has led to what appears to be a betrayal.”
“UW made the seemingly arbitrary decision to close an enterprise that was successful and that became widely loved in its short life,” he said. “By this action, the administration eroded the trust of those whose lives were improved by the BI and of those that supported it. The closing of the BI is a tragic mistake and one that makes UW a diminished institution.”
Martinez del Rio said that if UW had taken a more transparent approach regarding the closure, or worked harder to transition the Biodiversity Institute’s funding away from the Berry’s donations, there might have been a different outcome.
“Because there was no transparent consultation, we will never know why or how the decision was made. We will never find out who participated in it,” he said. “As far as I know, an evaluation of the performance of the BI was never done. This seems like an essential and fair component in the process that leads to the closure (or not) of a unit –any unit. Had it been done, it would have revealed a thriving enterprise. With this information in hand (and by making it broadly available), the administration might have modified its decision.”