A sculpture, called Carbon Sink, installed on the University of Wyoming campus, has generated a lot of controversy in the past couple of years. It was a pin wheel of charred logs that sought to draw a connection between coal, global warming, and increased beetle kill. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that this supposedly anti-carbon message certainly got the attention of law makers, donors, and those in industry.
IRINA ZHOROV: The piece was installed in 2011 and was removed in May of 2012, a year earlier than expected.
After Carbon Sink’s removal, U-W Professor, Jeff Lockwood, wrote a scathing piece accusing the University of buckling to political pressure.
So we requested records from UW to see if there was any truth to that. We got a large stack of printouts and a thumb drive filled with hundreds of emails and documents pertaining to the sculpture. Some were from industry reps. Others were from legislators.
One of those was from Gillette Representative Gregg Blikre:
“I just read the Casper Star Tribune story on the front page about the artist hired by the University to produce a product that trashes the very industries that provide nearly all the income in Wyoming for the State and for the University…”
Laramie Representative Kermit Brown wrote that it “almost seems to mandate that we have a second four year school in this state oriented toward the interest of those who make this state successful,” meaning the energy industry.
Gillette Representative Tom Lubnau, who serves in the powerful post as House Majority Floor Leader, wrote, quote: “I am considering introducing legislation to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”
TOM LUBNAU: As soon as I hit the send button on that one I called and said throw that one away, I’m going to send you another one.
ZHOROV: The records we obtained didn’t turn up the new statement, but in his public statements and future correspondences Rep. Lubnau said that he would never tinker with the University’s funding stream.
The University, and the Legislative Service Office said it’s very hard to come up with an exact number for how much of the University’s budget comes directly or indirectly from Wyoming’s coal mines and oil and gas fields. But 60-percent of U-W’s budget seemed a fair low bracket estimate. And so Rep. Lubnau wanted to take advantage of a teachable moment:
LUBNAU: Whether you appreciate that or not, and whether you like that or not, between 60 and 80% of your budget comes from those extractive industries and it’s something you ought to know.
ZHOROV: Peabody Energy wrote and said their two million dollar donation to UW was in question. And President of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, Bruce Hinchey, had his own teachable moment when he wrote to a who’s who list of Wyoming industry, quote: “The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate.”
Chris Boswell, UW Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs, was working for Governor Mead at the time.
CHRIS BOSWELL: Carbon Sink did come up. And frequently not in the sort of formal channels.
ZHOROV: In other words, the documents we received were just the tip of the iceberg.
BOSWELL: As it turned out, that installation played a role in budget decisions in the appropriations committee. As an example, Governor Mead had proposed a $2 mm dollar appropriation for the Cultural Trust Fund. If you go back and listen to what occurred, there was a very simple motion to delete the $2mm from the Governor’s budget, and it passed without discussion. What that tells you is that there had been plenty of discussion…
ZHOROV: To be clear, the Cultural Trust Fund helped fund a portion of the Carbon Sink.
Governor Mead said he wasn’t crazy about Carbon Sink, either, but he tried to mitigate.
MATT MEAD: To the angry ones, I said, listen, we can like or not like that, but I think that we have to recognize that these things can happen at a university and if you talk to President Buchanan directly he certainly has a great appreciation for what energy means for the university.
ZHOROV: So to the question of was there pressure to get rid of Carbon Sink, the answer seems to be, yes. And the question of whether U-W caved to that pressure, abandoning its right of free speech and academic freedom?
Here’s Chris Boswell again:
BOSWELL: It is in the University’s interest to be mindful of the factors at work in making determination in the state capitol. But angry folks don’t get to call the shots at the University. The University would be crazy to disregard constituencies completely, but at the same time the University cannot cow down to them. It’s a balancing act.
ZHOROV: Nevertheless, the documents do reveal that the sculpture was originally scheduled to be removed next summer, 2013. But an email from President Buchanan to Art Museum Director Susan Moldenhauer, said, “Given the controversy that it has generated, it would be best for UW if the [Carbon Sink] could be considered part of the Prexy’s removal during the summer of 2012.”
The piece was removed in May.
Here’s Susan Moldenhauer:
SUSAN MOLDENHAUER: I don’t know what his reasoning was, there was no conversation, so I don’t really know why. My only thought was that his request was in the best interest of the institution and I had to consider that and reply to that. My feeling was it was not part of the pressure or whatever was going on, but I don’t know.
ZHOROV: As an aside, Moldenhauer says the museum did see a slight decrease in donations.
One of the reasons the University gave for its early removal was the flooding of the piece due to a sprinkler line break. But that happened after Pres. Buchanan’s email. Buchanan did not want to comment for this story, but once again here’s Chris Boswell:
BOSWELL: I think the President was recognizing that the University had gone through quite a bit as a result of this installation, it had been damaged, and is there any merit in thinking about removing it in 2012.
ZHOROV: When the legislature approved the Half Acre Recreation Center renovations on campus, lawmakers stuck in language requiring that art work in the gym must get approved by the Governor and address transportation, agriculture, and minerals in Wyoming’s history. It’s a symbolic gesture, with food for thought. For one, Gov. Mead doesn’t feel terribly qualified to approve or not approve art work. But here is Representative Lubnau’s take:
LUBNAU: I think that everybody who has a stake at the University of Wyoming should have the opportunity to have a say in what that university looks like for our citizens. And what better body than the mirror of the people of the state of Wyoming through the 90 people who are elected by the people of the state of Wyoming to have input?
ZHOROV: So the question now is, where does that input stop and the state’s only University’s autonomy begin? For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.