Election: Should UW trustees be from Wyoming?

Legislators, Lindholm weigh in on proposed amendment

By Sarah Pridgeon

 

Voters will be asked to decide the future of the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees at the upcoming general election. Should the governor have the power to appoint a minority of trustees from outside the state, or should all trustees be required to live within Wyoming?

The change in question passed the Senate and House in 2013 and must now be approved by the votership. It would allow the Governor of Wyoming to appoint no more than two trustees from outside the state, specifying that a trustee who does not reside in Wyoming must “possess verifiable and demonstrable interest in and past interactions with the university which are reflective of commitment to the educational mission of the university.”

Opinions are divided as to whether appointing out-of-state trustees is a good idea. On the one hand, supporters argue that it would increase the pool of candidates and allow Wyoming to recapture expertise; on the other, detractors argue that there are applicable candidates within the state and opening it up to outsiders could turn an appointment into a reward for financial donations.

“It’s one of those constitutional amendments, unlike some of the others we’ve had over the years, where there’s not really a fatal flaw one way or another in my opinion,” says Representative Mark Semlek.

Semlek
Semlek

“There are some important points to consider, regardless of how you vote on it.”

Though Semlek voted against the constitutional amendment, he sees strong arguments on both side of the issue. He explains that supporting it acknowledges that Wyoming has a number of talented graduates that have made their mark across the nation and world.

“They live out of state, so is there an opportunity to capture some of the merit of these folks who have made well, to bring them back to Wyoming as a trustee to participate in the administration of the university with their experience, their connections and their influence?” he says.

“Our influence with the university is really beyond our borders so, if you support the amendment, you’re recognizing the value of getting the best mind or minds in the world that have some ties back to Wyoming and allowing them to participate in the administration of our university. You’re saying, let’s let them bring some of that information, influence and expertise back to help and guide our university.”

Senator Ogden Driskill agrees, adding that Wyoming has a number of high-powered graduates who are already interested in coming back to serve on the Board of Trustees. Driskill voted in favor of the amendment during the 2013 Legislative Session.

Driskill
Driskill

“It would be phenomenal as far as outside understanding of what the needs of the university are to truly compete in the U.S. and worldwide. We’re shutting those people out from having any input,” he says.

“They’re primarily 100 percent Wyoming graduates – I’ve talked personally to one of the top oil geologists in the world, who has expressed an intense interest in being a part of the Board of Trustees and to be able to have an influence on trying to make UW into a world-class deal. Wyoming’s slipped a little on that and…those types of people necessarily often move away and live outside of the state.”

Another of the candidates Senator Driskill mentions is one of the top female executives in the United States. She lives just across the border in Colorado and is therefore not eligible to serve.

“Born and raised in Wyoming, became an executive in a Fortune 500 company and would be phenomenal for the university, but does not qualify,” he says.

“Those people also tend to bring big amounts of money to endowments. That’s not the overriding reason to do it, but very often those people will bring in other people of great influence that end up endowing chairs and helping your college.”

Really good colleges keep their alumni engaged in their university – it’s part of what keeps a university healthy, the senator says.

“To me, to have a very small minority of out-of-state alumni be part of the Board of Trustees is a healthy thing,” he nods.

“If it’s out of hand, what’s done can be undone. I really think it’s healthy for the UW to have some of those people who have a broad [outlook], particularly in engineering and energy, to have a positive influence on jobs and help Wyoming have a university that really fits our people and is good for us.”

Though some have suggested that making it possible to appoint non-graduates who are not from Wyoming opens the door to filling the Board of Trustees with candidates purely on the basis of their wealth, Senator Driskill does not believe anything will change. There will be no more “cronyism” than there is with candidates who live in-state, he says.

”On almost any board I know, part of the consideration is always their giving ability – that’s just a part of life. That’s a hard thing to deal with, but it would be no more so than we do with our trustees who are in-state. I don’t see where it changes things a bit,” Driskill explains.

“It’s hard to get away from someone that’s well connected and powerful business-wise.”

Representative Semlek does not disagree with the arguments for the constitutional amendment, but ultimately voted against it.

“I just come down on the other side of the discussion that says: I believe we have nearly that same kind of talent here. We have residents in Wyoming who live, work and rely on the economies of Wyoming to make a living for themselves and their families, who’ve invested in Wyoming as a full-time resident and made that commitment to live, work, play, recreate and send their children to UW,” he explains.

“Maybe if you don’t support the constitutional amendment it’s because you believe, as I did and as is reflected in my vote, that we have those people here. If we want to have that influence on our university, let’s let it be from people who have invested in Wyoming with their families and businesses.”

The representative has known some of the university’s trustees personally throughout the years and believes there is a history of engaged candidates who are tried and true Wyoming residents.

“They’re very successful in business and everything they think about is Wyoming and how to make it better. I just think it’s a stronger commitment for them to be engaged with their university if they’re appointed as a trustee, because it’s not just another little job for them, it’s been their life,” he says.

“My no vote acknowledged that these folks are here and we appreciate what they’ve done inside and outside of their business.”

Semlek points out that UW is the state’s land-grant university; like all other states, Wyoming only has one. He sees it as important that the university and its outreach programs maintain their unique Wyoming identity.

“Our mission is somewhat different in that we acknowledge the value of the resources within that state,” he explains.

“I want to make sure we maintain ties to the things that are important to Wyoming and that the trustees who may help make those decisions know Wyoming’s way of life.”

Candidate for House Representative Tyler Lindholm agrees, believing that there is also a problem with the way that the amendment is worded.

Lindholm
Lindholm

“It actually doesn’t say anything in the constitutional amendment that those out-of-state residents have to have graduated from UW. If the amendment said that they have to be graduates from UW, I would be for it at that point, but the constitutional amendment is worded poorly if that’s their goal,” he says.

“I would personally keep the Board of Trustees the way it is now and I’d vote no on the constitutional amendment. As of right now, you have to be a resident of the State of Wyoming and I think we’ve got a huge pool of talented people – the entire state is littered with UW graduates that are all well qualified.”

The Board of Trustees is a working board, he says, not just a random feel-good appointment. The board puts in a lot of work to help the university and Lindholm is concerned that an out-of-state resident would not be able to do the same.

“It feels to me like only somebody who is independently wealthy could make that happen from out of state,” he says.

Though not a graduate of UW himself, Lindholm believes that the university is a special pool of people. It’s also something that the state has poured a lot of resources into, he says, and he would like to see it remain a Wyoming-run facility.

“I would support an amendment that said you could be an out-of-state resident as long as you were a UW graduate,” he explains.

“I understand the purpose and I think it’s a great idea to be able to pull from a larger pool for our Board of Trustees, but what I’m really afraid of is that if somebody is a big donor to UW and they’re from out of state, this is a way to give them a pat on the back – and I don’t want to see that happen.”

Though Lindholm does not believe the current governor would appoint someone just because they made a big donation, he warns that there is nothing to say it couldn’t become an issue in the future.

“Once a constitutional amendment is in place, they’re really hard to get rid of if they don’t work. I would definitely urge people to vote against it,” Lindholm says.

“UW is funded by taxpayer dollars within the State of Wyoming. I would prefer to see those taxpayer dollars used by Wyoming residents and managed by the Wyoming residents who are ultimately footing the bill.”

The constitutional amendment will appear on the ballot in November’s election.