For 2018, University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols looks ahead to a brighter, more stable future for UW, following a year of budget cuts, downsizing and reorganization.
UW was required to cut roughly $42 million from its budget across two years, in time for a July 1, 2017 deadline. While the cuts began in 2016, the final $10 million was cut out by Nichol’s permanent reduction plan implemented in 2017.
The last round of cuts included faculty separation incentives, staff layoffs and department consolidations.
“We reduced our budget completely in 2017 — down to the dollar amount that we had to — that the Legislature had asked us to,” Nichols said. “So, that was a big step. And so, with that, we had to reset a lot of things because, as you well know, we lost a number of positions and our budgets were reduced in many ways.”
This “reset” included more vigorous efforts to boost enrollment, expensive commitments to scientific research, funding external studies of UW’s capacity for growth — as well as its housing situation — and the implementation of a strategic plan.
“Having a five-year strategic plan for the university is a major, major step forward and one that will really fundamentally shape this university in the next five years,” Nichols said. “And I think that, hands-down, is our greatest accomplishment of 2017.”
The plan lays out specific goals for the institution such as boosting overall enrollment to 13,500, number of international students to 1,050, attendance at intercollegiate athletics events to 310,000 and total annual university revenue to $555 million — all by 2022, the year the plan expires.
“2018 will be our first full year of implementation of the strategic plan and we are very serious about it,” Nichols said. “So, there’s an awful lot of work going on right now around the strategic plan.”
UW has already started working toward its goals for 2022. To boost enrollment, UW hired an associate vice provost for enrollment management, enlisted the help of alumni, faculty and trustees in reaching out to undecided prospective students and advertised more heavily both inside and outside the state. Nichols and other administrators increased visits to high schools across Wyoming, including Wind River Indian Reservation schools.
The result was an increase in enrollment across the board, with modest increases in overall and international students aided by near-record increases in freshman and transfer students — an accomplishment Nichols said boosted morale on campus.
“Our fall enrollment was really quite a positive story, despite the fact we had been through kind of a tough year,” she said. “I’m not going to say we grew by great (strides) because we didn’t. But on the flip-side, we had been declining for a couple of years and sliding in enrollment. And my goal was to stabilize and just not decline.”
UW also grew its Honors Program into a full-fledged Honors College and dedicated the Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center — a dream shared by many on campus for more than a decade.
The university also continued to work on a growing commitment to improving its quality of science education and research, opening the High Bay Research Facility in August.
“That is such a beautiful state-of-the-art research facility that already is making a profound difference in terms of our research in the energy sector and that’s really going to be exciting,” Nichols said.
UW looks ahead to continuing to improve its commitment to science in 2018, as the State Legislature considers releasing the last of a $100 million sum appropriated for the construction of the Science Initiative Building.
“The Science Initiative is going to be very important in 2018,” Nichols said. “We’re asking the Legislature to give us the money to build the building and we hope to fundraise and use state dollars to really move STEM and science forward in a bold and exciting way. There’s a lot of good research that’s going to happen in that building.”
Nichols said a newly founded Entrepreneurship Initiative will aid in Gov. Matt Mead’s goal to diversify the state’s economy — a goal that could insulate UW and other state agencies from the very energy industry busts which triggered the budget cuts.
“We really hope to change the culture on this campus, if you will, to create what they call a campus ecosystem of entrepreneurship where we’re really helping all students — regardless of their major — think about how they might become more entrepreneurial in their thinking and in their skills.”
UW hired a number of new administrators in 2017 — some replacing former administrators, others filling completely new positions. Nichols said new leadership represents a new direction, though the university is indebted to those who came before and held a vision for the future of UW.
“I think any good organization will assess the strengths of the organization and will, to the best of its ability, try to build on those strengths and keep it going, even make it stronger,” she said. “But I also think, with new leadership, you can look at things differently.”
Nichols came to UW in 2016, making 2017 her first full year with the university.
“There’s been some hard days and it was a tough year, my first year here, and you kind of push through it and do the best you can and then now we’re into this year and it seems like things are kind of starting to settle for us a bit,” she said. “I’m not saying we’re over it all, but things do seem to be settling a bit.”
Nichols said she appreciated the people who “kept the faith,” staying on with the university even as it lurched through sometimes painful reductions, eliminations and reorganizations. She added UW was now on the right path even if work remains to be done.
“I have to say, I’m starting to feel a sense on this campus like maybe we’re at the tipping point,” Nichols said. “We’re at this pivotal point where maybe we’re going to push through and I think the future really is going to be very, very bright for this university.”