UW President Tom Buchannan: The County10.com interview, part two

University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan. (Ernie Over photo)

By Ernie Over, managing editor, county10.com

(Riverton, Wyo.) – County10.com met with University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan for an interview Thursday in Riverton. This is part two of the transcript of the interview.

County 10: You mentioned you had a few rough spots in your eight years.

Tom Buchanan: True

C10: One of the controversies at the university was the perceived censorship or lack of freedom of speech when it came to speakers and artwork and pressure received from outside sources.

TB: With regard to the latter, that was my decision. I thought it was a far more controversial piece of work than any of us thought it would be. (Carbon Sink was the title) I think it had ample opportunity to express the artist’s opinion, whether you were for it or agin it or somewhere in between,  and I thought It had lived out its message and it was time to move on. I did not receive a comment or any pressure to move that. We were moving temporary art pieces from that part of the campus and I sent a note to the art museum director saying how about this one at the same time since you are out and removing other art work. They showed up and took it out. We certainly heard from folks who didn’t like the artist’s message behind that piece of work, but I don’t think there were that many. We received a lot of criticism before it was even installed. A lot of it was not people viewing it and having a negative reaction, it was the perceived message that it was intended to deliver, and we got a lot of feedback on that. It comes with the territory. I think we started getting that feedback before we installed it. If we had wanted to censor that project we would not have installed it. Instead we put it in and we went through the process of fielding many complaints and comments about it, good and bad, and that’s part of being the university. It was out there for the better part of a year and it was a temporary piece of art, so that was my call. If folks want to disagree  that’s okay, it wasn’t bending to pressure. There was no pressure exerted on me at that time to remove that piece of work from externally, the board or from anywhere else. I just thought it was time to move on.

I’m perfectly certain that either before I leave or after, there will be another piece of artwork in the futue that some one or some group of people will object to and we’ll go through that again. That’s the nature of public universities and artwork.

The other one (an appearance of Bill Ayers of Chicago, former anti-Vietnam war activist), for me personally, was my decision and it was not in any way wanting to censor speech on campus. For me it had to do with safety. I would say it probably was the most volatile situation that I experienced during my time at UW. I would say on the heels of Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech and other places that had suffered the worst possible tragedies, I was overly sensitized to that. From the chair that I was sitting in, I would prefer to be wrong than sorry, so it was a decision I made. It was simply something we were not going to take a chance with on our campus. No place is immune from tragedy and Laramie is no exception with the events we had with our track team, and I was there for that, and Matthew Shepard, I was there for that, and a double murder/suicide, I was there for that, and I think probably the odds were that that nothing was going to happen,so goo but it was volitle and angrier that I’d ever seen. So, I’d rather be wrong than have to talk to somebody’s parents again.

C10: Do you believe academic freedom is alive and well at UW

TB: It’s alive and well, it’s alive and well. And I think if you visit with folks and faculty on campus I don’t think they feel in any way that they are constrained in any way in what they can pursue and what they can argue and discuss and who they want to bring to campus. We’ve had extremely controversial speakers before. We probably have 50 speakers a week on our campus. This was only one and I think it was turned, right or wrong, into a media event, as it had been for this particular speaker at a half a dozen other places. The fellow who invited him, uninvited him, so we didn’t un-invite him and that fellow wound up being threatened to the point where he didn’t want to be here, he moved away, he does not work at the university any more. Not that we wanted him to go, but he packed up, took a job elsewhere and moved his family. He just needed to get away, it was that serious for him.

C10: As you look back on the past eight years is there anything that stands out that you would like to see as your legacy?

TB: No, I think my M.O. has always been to just come to work, work hard, do what’s right, listen to the smart people around you, and there is no shortage of smart people at a university, and pursue a lot of great opportunities to advance the interests of the university. I think, like you mentioned, I was blessed by my timing, even if it was by chance. It was at that time period when the state had a lot of money and we had a lot of great legislative and political support from Governor Freudenthal and now Governor Mead, and we were able to pull all that together and leave the university in a little better shape than when we first got there about eight years ago.

C10: What do you see as the challenge for your successor?

TB: I think financial and budgetary (concerns) are short term. For the next few years there will be some financial challenges until the state’s economy rebounds and the price of natural gas goes back up. I think there’s a cycle to that in Wyoming that if you are here long enough, you get some of the good and some of the bad. I remember someone said if you ride the balloon up, you have to be willing to ride it down.

I think the challenges will be the goals that the university and the next president set for themselves. Building support across the state while maintaining and building political support are always challenges. We’ve had very good luck with facilities and programmatic funding and building a world-class faculty here. It’s intuitive to build and maintain partnerships for continuity; when the state does well we all prosper. The healthier the state is, the better the university is. UW needs to be relevant and connected.

C10: The university has received some positive attention about the value of an education here:

TB: We are the best value public university in the nation. Just 60 miles south, students pay $25,000 while our students pay $3,000. That’s a helluva difference when the quality of education is comparable.

C10: What is the value of athletics at UW?

TB: For a lot of people, that is the glue that keeps them connected, but it is not as important as academics. We expect excellence from our faculty in both academics and athletics. Overall our teams have been performing better in volleyball and wrestling, to mention two programs, and we just defeated CSU in football. Athletics is a part of our overall program but academics is the focus.

C10: Thank you President Buchanan for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me today.

TB: You’re very welcome. We’re heading now for a dinner with some local legislators and friends.