Critics of the removal of the “Carbon Sink, What Goes Around Comes Around” installation at the University of Wyoming, including the Casper Star-Tribune, have fashioned a narrative in which the university kowtowed to powerful interests, restricted free speech and conspired to mislead the public.
The facts do not support this narrative.
In truth, there was nothing nefarious about the removal of the installation. While the university is sensitive to the concerns of the many constituents the university serves, the notion that UW cowers before donors and politicians is simply not true. The university has been and continues to be a place where the free exchange of ideas, including those that are unpopular, is encouraged.
There is no question that media reports about the “Carbon Sink” installation in the summer of 2011 stirred criticism of the university. Some elected officials and industry representatives were unhappy to see the installation on campus, and they let the university know how they felt. While critics of the installation suggested that private contributions and legislative appropriations to the university might suffer, no one demanded that the installation be removed.
At the time of the criticisms, I stated that installation of campus art is not an endorsement of the artist’s message or an endorsement of what viewers might interpret, nor is the university in the business of interpreting art for others. Sculptor Chris Drury completed his work, and it stayed in place for close to one year, during which the university enjoyed one of its best-ever periods of private fundraising.
In April, months after the initial furor had subsided, and after the legislative session had ended, I asked the director of the university Art Museum to consider removing the “Carbon Sink” installation at the same time that a number of other outdoor installation pieces were being considered for removal. All were part of “Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational,” a temporary exhibition of public outdoor art.
Let me be clear: No one contacted me or pressured me to remove the “Carbon Sink” installation. My motivation in requesting the removal was simply that all of the temporary installations had already provoked whatever artistic statements or thoughts they were intended to make, and it was time to move on.
After the “Carbon Sink” installation was removed, several individuals inquired about the removal, recalling the early criticism of the installation. These conspiracy theorists created a narrative from selectively chosen pieces of information.
One of the positive outcomes of this controversy is that the university has a stronger relationship with northeast Wyoming and Powder River Basin coal country. The negative reactions to the installation have turned into productive discussions about how the university can better serve the educational needs of that fast-growing part of the state. I am delighted to see this progress: Increasing the university’s presence statewide, particularly through community colleges, has been one of my top priorities.
The university works hard to develop and maintain a wide array of programs to sustain Wyoming’s economy and way of life, including programs of excellence in agriculture, natural resources, health sciences, ecology, computational sciences, the arts and humanities, and energy. The university is deeply committed to extending instruction, research and service to all corners of the state and to all economic and social sectors.
The university also remains committed to free expression and to serving as a neutral marketplace for the exchange of ideas. The university’s students, faculty and staff challenge, provoke and stir discussion and debate, sometimes in eyebrow-raising fashion. Pay a visit to campus, and you will see a robust, diverse mixture of art installations, concerts, plays, lectures, visiting speakers, and student and faculty activities. There is no evidence that the university is censoring anything or is in anyone’s back pocket. In fact, it is just the opposite.