Biodiversity Institute Closure Raises Questions About UW's Commitment To Community Engagement

Aug 3, 2018

Credit TENNESSEE WATSON

One of the main goals of the University of Wyoming’s strategic plan is to positively impact Wyoming communities through learning outreach programs, and through collaborations that make academic expertise relevant in our daily lives. UW’s Biodiversity Institute is emblematic of this vision. But an administrative decision to close it down has raised doubts about the university’s commitment to its own goals.

The sounds of hammering and heavy machinery rang throughout the northwest corner of campus at the University of Wyoming. Construction workers were putting the facade on a new engineering building. And if you listened closely you could also hear bees hard at work pollinating native plant species out on the Berry Prairie.

That’s the green roof of the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center at the University of Wyoming. The space is used by the staff of the Biodiversity Institute to get kids excited about science.

Gary Beauvais gave me a tour.

“We’ll get 'em out here to catch the bees, which is a really popular activity because there is a little bit of fear with kids and bees, but that always intrigues them a little bit more,” said Beauvais.

He directs the Biodiversity Institute, or BI for short.

“To have them come out here with entomologists and show them you can catch a bee safely and put it in a jar and look at it safely; they start asking their own really insightful questions,” said Beauvais.

Visits like this are tailored to state K-12 science standards and the BI engages close to a thousand kids every year. It also runs seven separate citizen science projects that get hundreds of volunteers gathering biological data on moose, owls and amphibians for researchers back at UW.

“We’ve really tried hard to get our people and our programs and our work dispersed throughout the state,” said Beauvais.  “We do what we call science cafes. Just last week, up in Sheridan, we had a science program with kids out collecting aquatic insects.”

Beauvais said it’s all a part of an effort to make science research at UW more accessible to people around the state.

“A lot of times people view science research at a university as kind of impenetrable. They don't quite understand it, they don’t know why it’s done, they don’t know who’s doing it,” said Beauvais. “It’s a little bit of black box and one role of the Biodiversity Institute is to open that up.”

The university has been stressing outreach in recent months, so it surprised many when the administration announced abruptly that the institute will close in December due to the university’s inability to find additional private funds.  

The major donors were Bob and Carol Berry. They helped fund the construction of the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center and to get the BI rolling, but additional money was never raised to keep it staffed.   

“And there’s been some recognition for a while that the funding base needs to broaden under the BI,” said Beauvais. “We have begun to development some partnerships and brought in small pieces of funding. Nothing on the scale with what the Berrys provided.”

Larger scale fundraising is a shared responsibility that requires action on the part of the administration and more importantly the UW Foundation. Many on campus are questioning whether BI fundraising was considered a priority.

“I can’t speak to past efforts to diversify that funding but clearly we haven’t succeeded in doing it,” said Ed Synakowski, Vice President of Research and Economic Development, who oversees the BI.

He’s been at UW about a year, but he recognizes the valuable contribution the institute has made to the university’s science outreach efforts. He’s working with Beauvais to find new positions for the BI staff on campus.

“So those conversations are just beginning but I’m committed to following through on them,” he said.

But the hardest task that lays before the university might be regaining trust. For instance the Berrys -- the major funder -- learned of the Biodiversity Institute’s closing through Wyoming Public Radio’s initial reporting and not directly from the university.

“I don’t delight in admitting it,” said Synakowski, “but I take responsibility for the significant missteps in the communicating of what the administration’s decision is.”

Synakowski said this unfortunate event serves as an important reminder of several key things the university needs to do, like: “Make sure that stakeholders understand that they are valued and heard.”  

And he added university administrators and the UW Foundation need to work together.

Synakowski said, “To talk about leveraging these generous gifts into broader engagement that is sustainable. We have to show the donors that we are committed to making the impact of their gift last.”

If donors aren’t hearing that message, the risk is they might not give. UW Foundation leadership declined Wyoming Public Radio's request for comment as to what happened.

Back out on the Berry Prairie with Gary Beauvais, he pointed out the delicate plants that have taken root in the desert soil.

“And it was a struggle to get it established, but you can see now that it is established it’s growing very well,” said Beauvais.

He said he hopes the university doesn’t lose this and the connections the BI has formed across the state.