When the Wyoming State Legislature cut $42 million from the University of Wyoming’s budget in 2017, it was obvious there would be some layoffs.
A philosophy professor here, a mathematician there—the university whittled away its ranks to cope with the cuts.
Many Wyoming legislators are openly hostile toward the university and the “liberal faculty” who work there. They shed no tears as professors packed up and moved elsewhere.
“The guys who can get jobs are going to go elsewhere, and Wyoming will be left with a bunch of folks who can’t get jobs elsewhere.”
In Laramie, however, the effects have been profound. In the past year, roughly 370 jobs at the university have been eliminated. Nearly 100 faculty members have either been laid off or have left on their own accord, fleeing what they view as a sinking ship.
Many of those who have fled on their own were among UW’s best and brightest—young educators and researchers with promising careers who weren’t going to stick around at a dysfunctional institution in a state that doesn’t value their work.
Good people are leaving
Creative writing professor Rattawut Lapcharoensap was both a bright star and a casualty of the cuts. He’s a talented teacher and an acclaimed author who helped enlighten students and raise the stature and quality of the university.
But as UW downsized and combined departments in response to the Legislature’s cuts, Lapcharoensap’s position was eliminated. So, he took a job at a prestigious university on the east coast, where he’ll start in the fall.
“I’ve never seen morale this bad on [UW’s] campus,” he said. “Good people are leaving. And, ironically, those who you want to leave aren’t going to get anywhere. The guys who can get jobs are going to go elsewhere, and Wyoming will be left with a bunch of folks who can’t get jobs elsewhere.”
A “rock star” rides away
There are less obvious costs to the legislature’s cuts to UW, as well. When young, talented faculty members leave, they take their young, talented families with them. This compounds Wyoming’s brain drain.
Lapcharoensap’s partner, June Glasson, is a painter and illustrator. Her works have appeared in galleries and museums across the world, and she illustrates book covers for the nation’s best publishing houses.
But she was also a pillar of the Laramie arts community and a major booster for downtown development. It’s likely her absence from this role that Laramie will feel the most.
When young, talented faculty members leave, they take their young, talented families with them.
Trey Sherwood, director of Downtown Laramie, called Glasson a “rock star” volunteer. She said Glasson and other artists’ work in the community translates directly into better local business.
“A beautiful storefront is 70 percent more likely to entice a new customer in the doors to spend money,” Sherwood said. “So at the end of the day, a beautiful, vibrant downtown translates into sales tax, and to a vibrant local economy.”
The end of a business-friendly art event
Glasson was the co-founder of the Wyoming Art Party, a group that regularly organized community art events. She was also deeply involved in the Laramie Mural Project, which has overhauled downtown Laramie’s appearance.
Glasson’s most prominent contribution, however, may have been the Laramie Pop-Up Art Walk. The annual event, which Glasson founded and organized as a volunteer, pairs artists with local businesses and transforms downtown Laramie into a living art gallery for a weekend.
“It’s heartbreaking to say that, because June is leaving, the Pop-Up Art Walk will not happen this year.”
“The energy from the Pop Up Art Walk attracts our community to come downtown and to experience all that it has to offer,” Sherwood said. “When community members are down here looking at the art and interacting with the performers, they’re also buying a gift or getting lunch or grabbing a beer. We know through surveys with the business community that the Pop-Up Art Walk actually increases sales.”
But without Glasson, who essentially did six different jobs at the Art Walk, Sherwood said she simply doesn’t have the volunteer staffing to execute the logistically demanding event.
“It’s heartbreaking to say that, because June is leaving, the Pop Up Art Walk will not happen this year,” she said.
Moving forward (with a limp)
Lapcharoensap and Glasson’s departure illustrates some of the hidden costs of the Legislature’s cuts to the University of Wyoming.
In most states, universities are magnets for talented people and engines for economic development. Under heavy political influence from the Legislature, however, UW’s major contribution to Wyoming’s economy has been taxpayer-funded research on behalf of mining companies.
Meanwhile, the university struggles to retain good people. In addition to the effects of the budget cuts, the university’s Board of Trustees recently confiscated the lion’s share of faculty research funding and attempted to give itself the ability to unilaterally fire tenured professors and eliminated academic departments. These actions, faculty members say, have further discouraged good people from sticking around.
Since the University of Wyoming is the only four-year institution in the state, each eliminated department and faculty position has consequences for the overall quality of higher education in Wyoming.
But the ripples of the cuts reach beyond campus, into the communities and economies that folks like Lapcharoensap and Glasson help support.
As many people in Wyoming work to diversify its economy and make it a better place to live, actions by the Legislature often amount to a bullet in the foot.
It’s hard to move forward when you’re walking with a limp.