Faculty urges UW to slow reorganization plans

WYOMING -- The University of Wyoming’s Faculty Senate voted Monday to ask UW’s administrators to postpone a proposed reorganization that would move several programs from the College of Arts and Sciences to other colleges on campus.

The resolution was put forward by the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, which consists of eight faculty members, including the Faculty Senate chair and other leaders.

The original draft of the resolution requested an additional three months of review time, and was prompted after faculty met with the provost and president last week and were dissatisfied by the administrators’ explanation of their reorganization plans, Faculty Senate Chair-Elect Renee Laegreid told WyoFile.

In an amendment, Faculty Senate voted not to ask for a specific length of an extension and instead stated that it “does not endorse the current restructuring proposal and instead advocates that the UW campus community engage in meaningful deliberation” as part of a later strategic planning process.

“Most faculty understand the need to change,” Laegreid said. “Most of them would be committed to working toward change, but our voices haven’t been meaningfully heard, despite what the president and provost say.”

In July, UW unveiled its proposed changes, which would’ve consolidated some departments and cut 65-70 employees — mostly faculty — saving approximately $4 million. The plan would eliminate 10 department head positions.

Since then, administrators have significantly scaled back reorganization plans, but some faculty believe the remaining proposals have been marred by a rushed process and poor data, they say.

“One of the reasons [Ed] Seidel was elected president was because the University of Wyoming could use an update to be more competitive, but this has happened so quickly,” Laegreid said.

UW’s board of trustees are set to vote on the reorganization plans at their next meeting Nov. 17-19. Administrators plan to unveil their latest reorganization proposal in about a week.

The university has faced pushback since announcing the first iteration of the reorganization proposal in July.

More than 700 responses poured in during an Aug. 27 to Oct. 1 comment period. Nearly one-third of respondents identified themselves as UW employees, while 19 percent were students and 31 percent were alumni. Some 80 percent of respondents said that the plan doesn’t move UW in the right direction. The original restructuring was orchestrated as part of a plan for UW to cut $13.6 million in existing spending, while diverting some of that funding into new programs.

But now that the reorganization proposal has been significantly scaled back. Provost Kevin Carman estimated last week the reorganization will probably save only about $250,000, though the precise figure is still “in the process of being quantified.

“While the proposed reorganizations were catalyzed by the necessity of implementing further budget reductions, the proposed reorganizations will not yield substantial budget reductions per se,” Carman wrote in an Oct. 12 memo unveiling the latest proposal. “Rather, the proposed reorganizations are intended to position UW for a strong future as it fulfills its tripartite land-grant mission of learning, discovery, and engagement.”

In July, President Seidel stressed that UW needed to act on the reorganization quickly to be able to implement the $4 million in expected cost savings by the start of the next fiscal year.

Because those expected savings have been severely downsized, some faculty are arguing there’s no longer a compelling reason to have trustees vote on the plan in November.

“I wish they would put the brakes on this,” said Narina Nunez, a professor of psychology. “Let’s do this from the beginning and do it correctly.”

Before administrators unveiled the original reorganization proposal in July, they tasked a committee of faculty and students with conducting a “special program review” to evaluate academic units in preparations for new cuts.

The committee was convened in February and submitted a report to administrators April 28.

In that report, the authors expressed little confidence in their findings, citing a lack of time. The committee ranked units on a variety of metrics, including teaching loads, student demand, grant funding, scholarship, UW’s strategic plan and mission and the land-grant tradition of the university.

“Since most UW programs are performing well, the degree of separation across the quintiles was relatively small. In other words, most programs are solid,” the committee wrote in its report. “As a result, in many cases, only a very small decimal point separated the ranking of the programs.”

The committee concluded the report “does not provide a reliable path forward to achieve the necessary budget cuts.”

A few months later, administrators announced their reorganization plans and initiated a formal process governed by UW Regulation 2-13, which requires administrators to submit final proposals to the trustees within four months of the original request.

Faculty members told WyoFile they wish administrators had informally discussed their ideas for reorganization before triggering the 2-13 process.

Ruben Gamboa is the department head for UW’s Department of Computer Science, which administrators announced in July would be dissolved.

“The first I heard of it was mid-summer,” Gamboa said. “I had personally been told that the [department heads] that would be affected by the reorganization plans would be notified.”

He wasn’t, he said.

UW made its original decision to dissolve his department based on data about class sizes and potential cost savings that weren’t accurate, Gamboa said

“A lot of that I attribute to haste,” he said. “Making decisions based on data is important. I think the administration would like to do that. I think sometimes they think they’re doing that, but they’re using bad data.”

UW has now revised its plan, which proposes Gamboa’s department be merged with the Department of Computer Engineering.

When Carman presented the original proposal to the trustees in July, he stressed the need for greater academic efficiencies, asserting that about half of classes have fewer than 13 students.

“We love to have small classes and a favorable student-faculty ratio, but there’s a point at which this just can’t be sustained,” he said at the time.

Faculty were quick to challenge that statistic, calling it misleading at best and, at worst, blatantly false.

“Anyone who’s around academia would know those numbers are wrong,” Gamboa said.

The class-size statistic included “individual instruction” courses, like internships and thesis work for a single student.

When those courses are excluded from the data, only 14 percent of all undergraduate courses at UW had enrollments of fewer than 13, according to a Sept. 30 email from the Office of Academic Affairs. Of those courses with fewer than 13 students, 84 percent are upper-division classes, based on data from Fall 2019.

Seidel and Carman publicly repeated that assertion several times over months — a move faculty say misled the public and empowered UW’s detractors across the state who believe UW is overfunded.

“What’s astonishing is that Ed would continue to say that in public,” said Donal O’Toole, a veterinary professor and former Faculty Senate chair. “We can’t teach a class of 10 students without getting permission, so the idea that more than 50% of classes have less than 12 students is absurd.”

After administrators unveiled their proposal in July, Carman convened numerous committees to evaluate specific proposals.

The committees didn’t need to submit their reports until Oct. 1, but by mid-September, administrators had already announced significant revisions to the reorganization. More revisions came once the committee’s reports were submitted.

Lars Kotthoff, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, served on the committee that considered the merger of departments for chemistry and chemical engineering.

As with all the 2-13 committees, Carman charged Kotthoff’s with “exploring the benefits of the proposal” and forming mitigation strategies to overcome “unintended consequences.”

The committees weren’t charged with determining whether the proposal was a good idea to begin with, Kotthoff and others have noted. 

“I feel like a lot of committees didn’t feel comfortable giving frank opinions,” he said. “They were just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

O’Toole said he believes several committees advanced proposals they disagreed with but knew would be palatable to administrators.

In an email to WyoFile, Carman stressed the committees “had the liberty of not supporting the recommendations and/or suggest [sic] alternatives.”

“Several did so,” he noted.

After administrators submit their final reorganization plan to trustees, in about a week, they will take public comment until the board votes Nov. 19.

Though the savings from the reorganization are now in the thousands not millions, UW is still looking to find other ways to cut $13.6 million in existing spending.

Many of those cuts will come from within academics, but not all.

“It is possible that additional 2-13 committees will be needed depending upon final recommendations from deans as they implement their budget reductions,” Carman said in a Friday email.

A proposed 3-percent across-the-board cut for most programs should save $2.6 million, Carman wrote. UW is also considering changes to its retirement policies that would save about $1.5 million and “increased efficiencies in the instructional delivery” could save $750,000, he wrote.

For non-academic cuts, increased parking fees should save $500,000 and the university is also working on consolidating some “auxiliary” services — things like dining and dormitories — which is expected to save about $2.2 million.

Faculty members told WyoFile that many of their colleagues are currently looking to leave UW for other institutions because of reorganization plans and other budget cuts.

“Morale is at a rock bottom,” O’Toole said. “I think many people are just resigned and they feel this is a dysfunctional university.”

While the July proposal called for the elimination of up to 70 faculty positions, Carman said in an email last week that the number will be much smaller, though still undetermined.

“They’re probably going to lose 65 faculty anyways with what they’ve done with their foolishness,” Nunez said.

O’Toole, who’s taught at UW since 1990, expects older faculty nearing retirement won’t be as likely to leave, but young talented faculty members will.

Under the July proposal, UW announced that “faculty from existing departments that are discontinued, reorganized, consolidated, or reduced and who are qualified and have discipline specific expertise will be considered for open and funded positions.”

Once he saw that, Kotthoff started preparing an application packet, he said.

“We assumed that this would be the worst-case scenario and we would need to apply just like anybody else,” he said.

O’Toole said he thought that reorganization was designed to remove “dead weight” — well-paid professors with mediocre research portfolios. Instead, it’s liable to push out people like Kotthoff, whom O’Toole described as “a star that UW needs to retain.”

Once faculty members began preparing for that re-hiring process, it was natural to start applying to other universities as well, Kotthoff said.

“I definitely feel like I have no choice,” Kotthoff said. “I don’t really see this as a safe place for employment anymore.”

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