Throughout the past academic year, the University of Wyoming saw four times as many faculty members leave the university as it does in an average year.
A voluntary separation incentive program — conceived as part of UW President Laurie Nichols’ $10 million permanent reduction plan for fiscal year 2018 — was responsible for the loss of 43 professors, researchers, lecturers and other instructors.
Another 43 resigned during fiscal year 2017, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kate Miller said.
“It varies from year to year, but we’re typically in the range of say, 20 to maybe 25,” she said. “So, we did have more resignations this year.”
Miller said some of those resignations were likely related to the budget cuts, as well as concerns about the central leadership of the university, which has raised issues since the contentious and short-lived presidency of Robert Sternberg in 2013.
“I can’t tell you about every single faculty member, but I think there was a lot of concern around the budget cuts and what that meant for the future of the university,” Miller said. “So, I think that the budget cuts were a factor for people. I can’t say for every single person, but certainly for some.”
The faculty exodus could be especially difficult to manage this academic year, as university officials predict slightly higher overall enrollment and record-setting freshman enrollment.
“Some departments were hit harder than others and they had to find a way to find the resources to teach the necessary classes,” said Faculty Senate Chair Michael Barker. “That might be some faculty teaching extra classes. That might be hiring qualified adjunct professors.”
As the university looks to hire permanent replacements for more than half of the 86 who left, some professors said they fear UW’s ability to recruit new, younger faculty.
Prospective hires can see what has been going on at the university, Political Science Professor Gregg Cawley said, and the recent cuts might dissuade them from even applying.
“We’re on the verge of being able to hire people, we’re told,” he said. “But if people out on the job market, looking around, are now going to be able to see what’s been going on at the University of Wyoming, that might serve as a disincentive for them to apply here.”
And attracting those younger instructors and researchers will be necessary, the 68-year-old professor said, because they’re a vital part of balanced department.
“I’m pretty active, but even so, I’m not the one who keeps the program alive,” Cawley said. “It’s the younger folks who are bringing in the newer material. I mean, I keep up on stuff, but the newer folks — the assistant and associate folks — are the ones on the cutting edge of research.”
Faculty often specialize within their discipline, meaning when they are gone, other faculty and adjuncts are unable to teach their specific courses or continue their specialized research.
For example, as the Department of Atmospheric Science went from nine faculty to seven, it lost two researchers whose work was closely tied to the department’s research aircraft, Department Head and Professor Bart Geerts said.
“It’s not like the remaining faculty can write the proposals or do the work that these people that have left were doing,” he said. “We have less of that airborne atmospheric research and expertise on campus now.”
The King Air research aircraft is a large part of what makes UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science unique, Geerts said.
“We have the strength of airborne atmospheric research,” he said. “In fact, we are the only university in the whole nation that does this. We service other universities with that capability.”
Geerts said his department is “critically small” but hopes to grow in terms of number of faculty, graduate students and research grants.
While he would not speak for every faculty member, Cawley said many who left — as well as many who stayed — are simply exhausted following budget cuts, a lack of raises and other changes at UW, including a reorganization in the College of Arts and Sciences that merged many of its departments.
“My sense is we’ve got a lot of faculty who are simply worn out right now,” Cawley said. “All of this other activity is taking place on top of our normal teaching and research loads.”
The cuts affect the community outside campus as well, Geerts said. What happens at UW can have a ripple effect throughout the Laramie community.
“Our viability is also meaningful to the viability of Laramie as a whole,” he said.