A prof takes on the sacred cow

Wyoming's Cowboy Joes jump on a grazing critic

 

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Influential ranchers are cutting off contributions to the University of Wyoming and demanding that faculty be screened at hiring to weed out troublemakers.

The president of the Wyoming State Senate, Jim Twiford, R-Douglas, told the Casper Star Tribune that "We've got some some unlicensed, unbridled folks running over there that that ought to be smarter than to be biting the hand that's feeding them." In February, Twiford drafted a bill to close the University of Wyoming College of Law, but later dropped it. "I was trying to draw attention," he said.

Meanwhile, his colleagues in the Legislature argue whether to keep state funding for the university at its 15-year stagnation level.

The source of the firestorm is UW law professor Debra Donahue, author of Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity. The book, published last December, proposes removing cattle from millions of acres of public lands.

In response, Wyoming Stock Growers President Rob Hendry sent a letter to university trustees in early January, stating that the school needed to "do a better job screening applicants for different positions to adequately ensure that the majority of professors and instructors represent the ideals and views of Wyoming's people."

Hendry also called for a restoration in the College of Agriculture of "Wyoming grassroots fields," such as animal science, range management and agricultural economics, and an end to flirtations with more glamorous biological fields, such as ecology and biodiversity.

In the Cowboy State, ranchers swing great weight in the state Legislature, which provides 39 percent of UW's budget (HCN, 7/7/97: While the New Best booms, Wyoming mines, drills ... and languishes).

Not so long ago, the university administration would have quickly caved in to an outraged agricultural community and turned on the offending faculty member. In 1947, for example, the trustees ordered the administration to review all textbooks in use on campus, and the administration cheerfully complied. Just a few years ago, when the state's minerals industry went after another law professor, Mark Squillace, who did pro bono work for an environmental group, the administration gave him little public support.

But under university President Philip Dubois, the school is standing behind Donahue. Dubois said he hasn't replied in writing to Hendry's letter, but that in a meeting with Stock Growers staff, he and two trustees told them that "the loyalty oath went out in the 1950s, and that we seek the best scholars we can get."

The university is not about to yield on principles of academic freedom, he said.

Taking a stand

Since his arrival nearly three years ago, President Dubois has made academic excellence his goal. He has also been meshing business and economic expertise within the university with state efforts to improve Wyoming's dismal economy (HCN, 7/6/98: Riding the Wyoming 'brand').

Still, the university, the state's only four-year educational institution, is gradually losing enrollment, in keeping with the state's gradual population loss. Combined undergraduate enrollment peaked in 1991 at 12,656 and now stands at 10,940. It is nowhere near the economic engine found on campuses in neighboring states, let alone in other parts of the nation.

Though Dubois has made unpopular decisions - scrapping some programs and shoring up others - the university under his leadership has set new records in attracting both private contributions and federal research monies. So while the Cowboy Joe Club, which supports athletics at UW, may donate $100,000 or so less this year as a result of Donahue's book, the university probably stands to gain much more by concentrating on academic excellence, says faculty member Steve Gloss.

Sociology professor Garth Massey, whose career at the university spans 25 years, said he was gratified that Dubois "didn't back up at all" on Donahue's book. "We have an administration that makes reminders that the institution has a good deal of autonomy. Still," Massey said, "I rather like the idea that people care about what is being said by professors and don't blow us off. When they stop responding, we're going to be in big trouble."

Author Donahue was less enthusiastic about a letter Dubois sent to an agricultural publication, pledging support for agriculture. It "would have been nice" if the university president had shown equal passion for academic freedom, she said.

"But a university president has to wear a lot of hats, and he needs to be passionate in seeking funding," Donahue added. "He deserves a lot of credit for the efforts he's made."

Squillace, the natural resources law professor who was the target of the mining industry, said Dubois has "missed the opportunity to educate the public" on what academic freedom is all about.

"Instead, he made comments that are fueling this issue in a way that is not particularly productive - an us-against-them thing," Squillace said.

Dubois in the hot seat

Frank Philp, a sheep rancher, UW range management graduate, and a fourth-term Republican representative from Shoshone, says he shares Dubois' vision. But he also says that the feedback he gets from his constituents - who are dependent on minerals and grazing - is that they are fed up and want the university put in its place.

"They (wonder) why we should support an institution where people are doing things that are detrimental to the state."

Philp tackled Dubois earlier this year, when the university president appeared before the Joint Appropriations Committee.

Dubois says he owes apologies to neither side. "I am unfailing in my defense of the right of professors to speak the truth as they know it," he said. "But we do have an obligation to provide support to agriculture as an industry under our charter as a land-grant institution. That doesn't mean taking a political position on grazing vs. not grazing."

University trustees have defended academic freedom. Trustee president Hank True, one of the largest Bureau of Land Management lessees in the state, was adamant that the university is a place where lots of ideas are espoused under the aegis of academic freedom "and in no way are we going to infringe on that."

A former president of the UW trustees, Big Piney rancher Gordon Mickelson, had a different view. "Academic freedom is fine, but when you're jeopardizing livelihoods, something's wrong," said Mickelson, whose large ranch operations near Pinedale rely on federal, state and private grazing lands.

Unless the university can "get a handle" on Donahue, Mickelson says, he will terminate his support for the Cowboy Joe Steer-A-Year program, in which ranchers contribute steers to support athletics.

Bill Taliaferro, a southwestern Wyoming rancher, a community college trustee and unsuccessful candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1998, has already withdrawn his support, because he cannot "in good faith support an institution, in any way, which continually causes my industry, other industries and many Wyoming residents so much unjustified economic heartache."

The writer lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and is a former High Country News intern.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Katharine Collins

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