In Wyoming, academic freedom is an endangered species

 

Mention the term academic freedom, and some people picture professors sitting in ivory towers, writing arcane articles and books for each other. They're wrong. Academic research and higher education may be specialized, but they are not arcane or irrelevant.

Ask the students who flock to this nation's major universities, or visit the industries that have sprung up around these places. The engine that powers this education, research and economic development is very simple. It is academic freedom - the right of professors to teach and to pursue research within the bounds of peer review, and with protection from political and economic meddling.

Tragically for Wyoming, for its university, and for its citizens and economies, academic freedom has been under siege here since my arrival at the University of Wyoming 12 years ago, and probably for decades before. Event follows event with almost monotonous sameness.

Today, the law school is threatened with extinction by the state Legislature because some legislators do not like a book on range land a law professor wrote.

Two years ago, the university's Wyoming Water Resources Center, which I headed, was defunded and destroyed by the Legislature, with the cooperation of the present administration. The destruction was championed by then president of the Wyoming Senate, Robert Grieve (R-Carbon County), a "water buffalo" and previous chair of the Legislature's powerful Select Water Committee. The closure was triggered by a research-grant proposal the center submitted to the U.S. Department of Interior on water reallocation in the Platte River Basin to address the concerns of endangered species.

The proposal had been rejected for funding about nine months prior to the 1998 biennial budget session of the Wyoming Legislature. But the proposal had been written. Grieve and others were determined that this kind of research should never be conducted at the university.

The research is being done today just across the Wyoming state line, at Colorado State University.

The legislative leadership, and particularly Sen. Grieve, deserve much of the credit for closing the center. However, the final decision rested with the then relatively new university president, Philip Dubois, and the Board of Trustees.

They could have used other funds to keep the center open, and some legislators expected that to happen. But in part to establish political credibility with the Legislature, President Dubois closed the center, which was ranked among the top six such programs nationally by its peers.

The loss to Wyoming - an arid state that badly needs to understand its water resources - has been almost complete. The university program that has been attempting to maintain a presence in water research was recently placed on probation. The U.S. Geological Survey gave the University of Wyoming until June 2000 to justify its eligibility to receive federal funding under the Water Resources Research Act.

A university controlled by special interests is in trouble. And word of UW's troubles reaches all the way to the coasts. Here's one example.

In the mid-1990s, several faculty were invited to visit a major foundation in New York City to discuss funding of a several hundred-thousand-dollar project. After a cordial visit, the faculty were asked how much outside influence there was on research. The foundation officer knew that high-level efforts had been made to stifle a critical report by UW engineering faculty about a coal industry research project called Char Fuels. (Despite the stifling of the professors' analysis, Char Fuels died anyway, taking lots of state money with it.)

The visiting faculty knew about Char Fuels and about similar events the foundation program officer had never heard of. They attempted to put the best face possible on the university's academic integrity. Nevertheless, the proposal was not funded.

The damage to the university is not being done just by legislators. It is also being done by the administration, whose first reaction to the current controversy over Debra Donahue's book (see below and on page 3) was to write to a livestock industry publication, saying that everyone on the faculty has an opinion and Donahue's was only one, and further, that UW supported production agriculture.

Unfortunately, the administration said little about the central issue: that the freedom of a Wyoming scholar to pursue research was once again under attack. Only after critical newspaper articles and editorials appeared did the administration begin to mildly defend academic freedom.

The result of these assaults on academic freedom, and the weak and ineffectual defense from within the University of Wyoming, has been to impugn our reputation locally, regionally and nationally. With the Donahue issue, we have yet again missed an opportunity to explain to the people of this state what a university and academic freedom are about.

Perhaps some day legislative and university leaders in Wyoming will understand what a university can and should be. When that happens, Wyoming will finally be on its way.

Steve Gloss is a member of the faculty and former director of the now defunct Wyoming Water Resources Center at the University of Wyoming.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Steve Gloss

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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