As a growing roster of presidents have left or been forced out at the University of Wyoming, the institution’s Board of Trustees has come under fire, repeatedly, for both the high turnover rate, and its lack of transparency.
Responding to this climate of distrust — or perhaps capitalizing on it — a bill before the Wyoming Legislature this session would radically change the size and selection of the board.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said it’s time for UW trustees to be publicly elected.
“Wyoming taxpayers allocate enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to support the university and there needs to be accountability,” Gray said. “This bill creates a process where we have that accountability.”
House Bill 83 would reduce trustee terms from six to four years, and reduce the board from 12 to eight trustees. Those eight would be selected via an electoral process that still requires governor appointment.
Currently, the governor appoints trustees from seven districts that divvy up the entire state. The governor is limited in the number of trustees they can appoint from each district and in the number of trustees they can appoint from a particular political party. These appointments require state Senate approval.
“The current appointment process for the board is not appropriate,” Gray says in a news release. “Transitioning the appointed board to an elected process will create accountability.”
Under the new bill’s proposed schema, the two candidates receiving the most votes from each of Wyoming’s seven appointment districts would represent the electorate’s choice for trustee candidates. A statewide election to determine two candidates for the board chair would take place simultaneously. The governor would then select one candidate from each district, as well as a statewide chair, from the choices provided by the people of Wyoming.
These appointments would still require Senate approval.
Elected boards govern at other universities across the country — such as, for example, the University of Colorado system, which publicly elects its Board of Regents. But there are also elected boards closer to home, at each of the state’s seven community colleges.
Nada Larsen of Meeteetse is a member of Northwest College’s Board of Trustees. She said the current gubernatorial appointment system gives UW a board lacking in accountability.
“Frankly, they don’t operate under the same kind of governance that the community college boards do,” Larsen said. “They dabble in things a good deal more than community college boards do.”
Governing the Wyoming college farthest from the university campus in Laramie, Larsen could not say how closely the electorate at-large would pay attention to what’s happening at UW, or how engaged they would be.
But she said she supported the idea of locals choosing their own representatives to the board.
“We know our people like we know our legislators,” Larsen said. “And if they’re not doing what we think is appropriate then we have the opportunity to replace them.”
This is not the first time since former president Laurie Nichols’ dismissal from UW that those concerned about the university have suggested electing trustees. A student senate resolution written and debated by that body during the spring 2019 semester also made the case for elected board positions.
The resolution, unlike the bill now before the Legislature, provided for three seats to be filled by faculty, staff and student senates.
“We wanted to write something that would maybe increase accountability for the board of trustees,” said UW student Courtney Titus, a co-author on the Senate resolution. “A lot of people were in support of the idea in general of changing the way we view the board of trustees.”
Titus said the resolution could expand the field of possible candidates beyond the boundaries of the governor’s connections.
“Your average UW student wouldn’t be able to pick out a board member if they saw them walking across Prexy’s Pasture,” Titus said. “Possibly, if their seat was in question every so often and they were forced to campaign or do outreach to students, then that would alleviate some of that.”
The resolution failed, in part because some in the senate argued it would be perceived as reactionary, coming hot on the heels of the news about Nichols.
House Bill 83 will also face a tough challenge as it heads into a legislative budget session without a committee endorsement.
The Wyoming Legislature hosts budget sessions in even-numbered years. During these sessions, a bill requires a two-thirds vote in its respective house simply to be introduced.
Larsen and Titus said they are doubtful the bill can go anywhere this year, but they welcome what they see as the beginning of a conversation. Gray, on the other hand, said he believes his bill can pass. The deadline for introduction is Friday.