By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Legislators on the Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee began discussions last week on how to assert great influence over programming and funding for the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Committee members expressed frustration that the college faced disproportionate cuts after the budget cuts made by UW in 2016. Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said there was a perception in the state that the cuts were “politically motivated” and aimed at “punishing the Legislature for asking for any fiscal austerity at all.”
The college is about to enter a new chapter as Barbara Rasco from Washington State University becomes the college’s new dean on June 28.
After hearing from the college’s interim dean, Mark Stayton, the committee directed Legislative Service Office staff to draft a bill that would require the College of Agriculture to directly report its revenue and expenditures each year to the Joint Appropriations Committee and agriculture committee.
Richard Tass, R-Buffalo, suggested that UW administrators had intentionally made significant cuts to the College of Agriculture, knowing that legislators might be more concerned about that college than others.
“I think it’s unfair for the university to push so many of these cuts into the ag department, knowing that that’s where we’d be more generous,” Tass said.
Some of the staffing loss, however, comes from the fact that UW focused on eliminating positions through attrition in 2016. Since the College of Agriculture faces more turnover than other areas of the university, it became an easy target, Stayton said.
Trying to punish the Legislature, Stayton said, likely wasn’t the motive of UW administrators.
“There was a certain level of panic on campus when it came time to make these cuts, and there were a couple of unintended consequences of the the cuts that were made, which were driven largely by speed,” he said. “But it did disproportionately affect our outreach mission.”
Stayton reported to the committee on Tuesday that the college’s staffing has dropped by 57 positions since 2015, and another 89 temporary positions, like graduate assistants, have also been lost.
For example, the animal science program lost more than half of its positions in two years. UW Extension’s staffing has dropped by 41%, and 6 of 23’s Wyoming counties no longer have any Extension staff.
Stayton said the 15% drop in staffing wasn’t done in a “strategic” manner. Since the cuts “had to happen fast,” Stayton said UW largely eliminated positions from which staff members had resigned or retired from.
Rep. Hans Hunt, R-Newcastle, co-chairs the agriculture committee, and said he’d like the committee to spend a full day on the College of Agriculture at their September meeting.
“The public interest seems as high as it’s ever been,” Hunt said.
This past legislative session, UW President Laurie Nichols had asked for a $5 million funding increase for the college — about half of which would go to an equine studies program.
Legislators on the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee scoffed at that request, with chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, saying that equines studies is a more appropriate focus for the community colleges. Central Wyoming College, which sits in his district, is currently working on a new equine center and a boost to its own program.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, also sits on JAC and pushed for a much greater focus on rangeland management.
Ultimately, the college received almost none of $5 million that was requested.
On Tuesday, Stayton said that if legislators want to send a message to UW’s board of trustees that the College of Agriculture is a priority, the best thing they can do is “respond positively to any legislative ask that comes out of the university.”
“I think that would be an acknowledgement of the problem that has arisen,” Stayton said. “It’s easy for me to be blunt because I’m a short-timer.”
Both Stayton and industry leaders agreed that the college needs to be built up to its old renown, and all parties agreed that its focus should be different than it has in the past.
“We’re not asking to rebuild the college of old,” Stayton said. “I don’t think we want that kind of operation. I think what we want is a little bit leaner, but covers the three legs of the land-grant mission.”
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that the college’s rebuilding should address the state’s needs in traditional agriculture jobs, like the current dearth of ranch managers.
But he also said the college needs to focus on emerging issues, like food science and marketing, that focus on the end consumers.
“The vertical integration of our industry today is far beyond what we would have envisioned 20-30 years ago,” he said. “Food science has become something that’s now very important in agriculture production.”