On the eve of graduation weekend, President Laurie Nichols announced to the Board of Trustees that 37 University of Wyoming staff members would lose their jobs to meet budget cuts.
All across campus, staff were working to get the class of 2017 graduated and onto their next venture. But there were questions in the air about how the state’s only public university is holding up.
One of the workers getting a PA system set up for graduation was John Wilhelm. He said for staff, news of the layoffs is causing some anxiety. “People hope that they won’t lose their job. Nobody wants to be unemployed, but I feel like people have been unsure of that for over a year now,” said Wilhelm.
In 2016, the Wyoming State Legislature announced UW would have to take a $40 million cut. 80 percent of the university’s budget is personnel, so job loss has been on the table since the beginning. On Thursday the bad news was confirmed, when President Laurie Nichols told the Board of Trustees that after graduation, 37 staff members would lose their jobs.
Staff Senate Vice President Rachel Stevens said no one knows how the layoffs will be distributed across campus. Staff don’t know, “which positions they are, or in which areas,” she said. “And that is something we will continue to look for until all of the layoff notices go out.”
The layoffs were a last resort. The university already offered incentivized retirement programs to faculty and staff. Between these different strategies, 369 positions will be eliminated. But Stevens said she thinks the overall turnover may be much higher when it’s all said and done.
And UW staff person Wendy Perkins said as folks leave there’s no clear plan as to how those who stay are to handle more work. She’s been at the university for 16 years. She’s gone from being the office manager for one program to managing four.
“This university is a good university,” she said. “As far as, you have friendly people and you have people who will go the extra mile. And who will put the effort in. But they do so because they feel like they are a part of something important. And when you take that away it’s just a job. You come in. You do the job. You put in the minimal amount of effort and you leave.”
That has left Perkins concerned that low morale will impact students. And she said she is seeing faculty and staff leave, who did not take the voluntary retirement incentive, so they would not be included in the 369 quoted by the university.
Snehalata Huzurbazar, a statistics professor, is one of them. “I moved here in 1995 because I wanted to live in the west again.”
Huzurbazar left a higher paying tenure-track job in Georgia because she loves Wyoming. “My friends elsewhere in the mountain west — at CSU, at New Mexico — we joke this is the scenery tax. Our salaries are lower, but we can go hiking,” she said.
But after 22 years at a university she loves, she decided to take a position at West Virginia University — in another coal state. But she said the university was prepared to handle the downturn of coal differently. And she said she knows others driven away by UW’s instability, who were immediately rehired.
“So we are not losing people that no one else wants,” said Huzurbazar. “These were people that were incredibly marketable.”
And that self-selection may be affecting some departments more than others, according to Professor Stephen Bieber, who chaired the Financial Crisis Committee, charged with figuring out how to make cuts for the fiscal year 2018.
“I had the great pleasure of working with the president, and the provost, all the way down to whomever on the campus during the crisis process,” he said. “I interacted with everyone from all levels.”
He explained efforts to make workforce reductions were hard because there was not a pre-existing strategic plan and it was evident that not everyone had access to the same information. “The farther you got removed,” he said referring to the administration, “the more it enabled you to be alienated and to feel lost in the process, and certainly morale was affected more there.”
But Bieber is optimistic that the university is learning from its mistakes. President Nichols, who’s only been at the university a year, quickly drafted a strategic plan, which Bieber said acknowledges a critical need to gather more data, and for information to be openly available across campus. He said this will help the university be more strategic and less reactionary in the future.
Of the people losing their jobs, he said, “These were not people who were poor performers. These were good people doing good jobs. And in many cases, really deeply loved the university. I mean I know custodians. I know people that work in physical plant. I’ve known faculty. People who just loved the University of Wyoming. Some of them have lost their jobs or left the university. I’m sorry and it pains me that we’ve lost the university that we had. And I go ok: you have to grieve, you have to honor that and you have to move on.”
Sadly positive changes coming from this crisis have come too late for the 37 staff members the university will say goodbye to in the coming weeks.