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University of Wyoming instructors and alumni asked president Laurie Nichols to protect their programs in the face of dwindling state funds during a listening session Monday at Casper College.

The meeting was the sixth of 10 such events Nichols and various UW officials will hold as the university looks to draft a strategic plan for its next five years. The university officials did not answer questions but listened to comments and concerns from some of the roughly 80 attendees. Those perspectives will be taken into account as UW makes its strategic plan, Nichols said. The majority were related to state budget cuts.

UW’s board approved $10 million in cuts and adjustments in November, on top of $19.3 million in reductions rolling into effect this fiscal year. The budget cuts are necessary because of the university’s declining state block grant: The university has lost $41 million in state funding in the two-year budget cycle that began July 1.

Nichols estimated that several hundred people have attended the sessions so far. In Casper, she and other officials, including the interim dean of the school of outreach, Alyson Hagy, gave a brief presentation on the state of the school before opening the floor to the audience.

The comments from those who rose to speak Monday night varied from enhancing UW’s geology program to greasing the wheels for transfer students coming to UW, but many involved the university’s College of Agriculture and the school’s career technology education (CTE) program, which is one of roughly 15 UW programs under review.

“I think where some of their concerns come from is simply in the number of faculty,” Nichols said of the concerns about the ag school. “As we’ve gone through this budget cut ... I’ve had to eliminate some faculty lines. There’s been faculty lines eliminated in ag, and I don’t think they’re happy about it.”

‘Cut to the bone’

Indeed, a trio of men, including state veterinarian Jim Logan and college of agriculture adviser Bob Kidd, quickly defended the ag school.

“The agriculture industry relies a great deal on the University of Wyoming to survive,” Logan said, pointing out that agriculture is the third-largest economic factor in the state. “Please, as you consider this strategic plan and these budgets, please remember the land-grant university programs.”

He also urged Nichols to protect and enhance the school’s agriculture extensions across the state.

Should the “world-class scientists” working in the vet labs retire and not be replaced, it would be a blow, Logan said, because of the reliance the agriculture industry has on veterinarians. UW has been eliminating staff and faculty positions through attrition recently, with a new round of buyouts announced in November.

Kidd lamented the energy downturn and its effect on the state and UW.

“It’s better to have boomed and bust than not to have boomed at all,” he said.

A rancher, Kidd told Nichols that the budget cuts had sliced through the fat already. “We’re starting to cut onto bone,” he said.

A man sitting near Kidd said that losing faculty at the ag school would cost students their inspiring mentors. The school helps feed Wyoming and the rest of the world, he said, and he pleaded with Nichols not to lose sight of the heart of the school.

“Human resources are the most important,” he said.

‘Unfairly punished’

Next came a wave of people advocating for the career in technical education program, which is under review by UW because of low enrollment, Nichols said. Originally, there were around 25 programs being considered, and that list has been narrowed to roughly 15.

Two technical education teachers in Natrona County spoke to the program’s importance in keeping Wyoming professionals in the state.

“It’s one of the few programs in the country, there are only a handful of them,” teacher Mance Hurley said. “Most of the kids are from Wyoming and they want to stay in Wyoming. ... When you’re considering cutting programs, even though the demand may not be large, the demand for those students is very high.”

UW professor Rod Thompson, who is in charge of the CTE program, spoke passionately about the students who’ve gone through the program. He pointed to the need to diversify the energy-reliant Wyoming economy, a problem that Nichols acknowledged at the beginning of the meeting and Gov. Matt Mead highlighted last week.

Students in the CTE program, he said, will stay and diversify Wyoming.

He also suggested that an important reason many Wyoming high school students graduate is because of their technical education experiences.

“I think a large percentage of those are encouraged to graduate because of their experiences in our CTE classrooms,” he said. “CTE is Wyoming, strong and proud.”

One woman stood up after Thompson and blamed the program’s low enrollment on a lack of promotion.

“I think part of the reason that it’s been small is because it’s historically been underrepresented in terms of university recruiting,” she said. “Many of the recruiters going around the state haven’t been even been aware of the fact that there’s a program here. And I think that this program is being unfairly punished for that lack of attention.”

Looking ahead

Nichols said after the meeting that the evaluation of school programs like CTE is ongoing and that the minefield of more budget cuts are on the forefront of many people’s minds.

“There’s some people who think that we had to cut because the economy’s down and we’re a big part of the state’s budget,” she said. “And then you hear people here who say, ‘We shouldn’t have had to cut anything; we want to go back to 2012 funding levels,’ and that was back before any cuts happened.”

Nichols said the university would have to become more self-reliant. Private giving to UW was over $60 million in 2016.

“We’re going to ask the foundation to step up and do more,” Nichols said of the university’s fundraising arm.

As for any future budget cuts, Nichols said it was too early to say but that she felt the university had done all it could do, and if more cuts came down, it would have to take a hard look at more services and programs.

“We’re going to have to go much deeper than we’ve had to up to this point,” she said.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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