Current Edition

current edition

Guest Opinions

University of Wyoming Remains Strong

Written by Laurie Stenberg Nichols

Since becoming the University of Wyoming’s (UW) 26th president in May, I have had the pleasure of traveling around Wyoming to learn everything I can about the state, meet its people and hear their thoughts and desires for the state’s university.

Those interactions have confirmed something I suspected when I decided to accept the presidency last winter – even though I’m not a Wyoming native, my upbringing and career in the next-door neighbor of South Dakota have prepared me pretty well to understand the people and culture of Wyoming. Things really aren’t that much different. Wyomingites are strong, friendly and independent, with a strong work ethic and a great deal of personal responsibility.

And, of course, much like South Dakota, agriculture plays a key role in Wyoming’s economy and way of life. Having grown up on a farm, with parents and family who have been engaged in agriculture my entire life, I feel right at home in Wyoming.

The common theme of my interactions across the state has been affection for and pride in the university, along with the expectation that it deliver on its land-grant mission of access, quality education, research to stimulate the economy and service to the state and nation. As a product of land-grant universities and having spent my entire career as a land-grant university faculty member, I am happy to lead an institution that continues to embrace its land-grant heritage and mission.

Measured by its impact on American society, the Morrill Act of 1862 must rank as one of the great legislative achievements of 19th century America. The law that provided for the establishment of land-grant universities set the stage for institutions that made higher education accessible for many and that were devoted to serving the people and industries of the states where they were located.

Later congressional actions built upon that foundation, including the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided for the establishment of agricultural experiment stations at those land-grant universities. The Hatch Act deepened and amplified the land-grant mission of education, research and service that continues today.

UW was established in 1886 under the provisions of the Morrill Act, and the Wyoming Agriculture Experiment Station (WAES) was created just five years later – one year after statehood – to serve the state’s farmers and ranchers. As we mark the 125th anniversary of WAES, it’s only appropriate to examine the station’s impressive history and take stock of its achievements.

WAES, both on campus and through our research centers in Lingle, Powell and Sheridan, regularly produces valuable information regarding crop and livestock production, ag economics, weed management and food safety.

Here are a few examples of WAES research:

A collaborative project at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center is finding ways to restore land decimated by invasive weeds such as cheatgrass, which takes valuable land out of production.

Dried bean trials at Powell are helping identify varieties that will perform well in the northwest part of the state.

Research at Sheridan is finding the most ideal combination of grass/legumes to establish in irrigated crop/forage system.

WAES has re-established a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho. WAES had transported the foundation flock of Columbia sheep to the station in 1918. Now, the Laramie Research and Extension Center will test rams from breed improvement research the sheep station has been conducting in recent years.

In my travels around the state, I also have made a point of visiting with UW Extension employees who do important, on-the-ground work with the people and industries of Wyoming. The Extension program was created under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, in which Congress provided funding for outreach efforts at land-grant universities in partnership with state and county governments. Specifically, the Act’s purpose was “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture … home economics and rural energy and to encourage the application of the same.”

I’m pleased to see that more than a century later, the state-federal-county partnership endures and flourishes in Wyoming, continuing to help the state’s citizens and communities respond to challenges and changes. Although Extension has broadened its educational mission to encompass many of the contemporary issues facing Wyoming’s people and its rural communities, the program’s roots are still firmly planted in agriculture.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that after a long delay and unfortunate problems, work has begun on construction and repairs to UW’s biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory. The building and remodeling should take about 10 months, followed of course by the commissioning and rigorous certification process. I understand this has been a frustrating situation for many people, but I’m glad to see things are now moving forward. This lab will provide ideal conditions for researchers to work with wildlife and livestock diseases including brucellosis, plague, tularemia and Q fever. Even without that facility, our brucellosis researchers remain hard at work on effective vaccines and vaccination practices. We remain hopeful for breakthroughs that will help the agriculture industry and wildlife managers.

I am committed to maintaining strong research facilities and conducting research that is useful to the state’s agricultural producers, even as the university tightens its belt in response to the downturn in the state’s energy economy.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Governor Mead has tasked the university with reducing its budget by a total of $35 million in the coming biennium – in addition to a nearly $6 million cut that came from the 2016 legislative session. There also are needs within the university, related to maintenance of new buildings and upgrading our fiscal reporting system, that require internal reallocations.

I experienced a similar budget reduction at my previous university, so I know that there definitely will be some pain. But I also know that it is possible for an institution to go through reductions of this magnitude and come out even stronger, as a result of prioritization and innovative thinking. I’m committed to making sure this is the case for UW. Strategic planning is one of my first priorities for the university, and I intend for that planning process to also be very inclusive and transparent. It is clear that we will have to think very creatively to maintain and enhance the university’s level of service to the state, and a key to that will be a multidisciplinary approach among our academic units.

Fortunately, there are strong multidisciplinary efforts already in place, including the cooperative relationship between the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Another example is the university’s Science Initiative, which involves five academic departments in the foundational sciences, including molecular biology in the College of Agriculture.

The Science Initiative will involve recruiting and giving Wyoming high school graduates a world-class experience, with active-learning programs, classrooms and laboratories to dramatically increase student learning, retention and satisfaction. We have a number of strong programs in the sciences already, and these coming changes have to potential to lift us to the top quartile of universities across the country.

The Science Initiative plan calls for relocating the Department of molecular biology to be with its sister departments of botany and zoology/physiology. Space freed up by the move of Molecular Biology will provide additional research and support spaces for the Department of Animal Science. This is a very exciting effort that has received strong support from the Legislature and the governor, and we are committed to moving it forward as quickly as possible.

In spite of the challenges facing the state, I remain optimistic for the university and Wyoming’s education system. Higher education is critical to Wyoming’s future, because our graduates are the people who will drive the innovations that assure a future for the state’s key industries; develop new ideas and businesses to diversify the state’s economy; and assure that Wyoming remains a great place to live, work, play and raise families.

I look forward to working in concert with all components of Wyoming’s education system, state government, private industry and others to help drive positive changes in the state – changes that improve our economy while protecting those things we hold dear in this part of the country. Pulling together when times are tough is part of the Western ethic, and I promise that the University of Wyoming will be an active partner as we work our way through the current downturn.