Entrusted with education
As one of a dozen University of Wyoming trustees, Mead makes big decisions.
Jackson Hole attorney and rancher Brad Mead cheers on the University of Wyoming Cowgirls as they fight to victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs in the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. Two of his fellow UW trustees — Ann Rochelle and Jeffrey Marsh — flank him, while future Cowgirl Rowyn Birdsley, 5, keeps score in front. Sports show the importance of the university in the state, Mead said. ANGUS M. THUERMER JR. / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Brielle Schaeffer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
February 13, 2012
One day years ago when Brad Mead and his grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. and Wyoming Gov. Clifford Hansen, were moving cows, they talked about the importance of education. That conversation stuck with Mead.
“He told me that his dad told him that you can have a big house, you can have a business, you can have nice clothes, you can have all kinds of material things,” he said, but “they can all go away. The one thing you’ll never lose is what you know. Your education is one thing nobody can take away from you.”
Education was especially important to Hansen, who as a boy wrestled with a severe stutter that was corrected when he attended a special school. He went on to be elected president of the University of Wyoming’s board of trustees and governor of the state.
Now Mead, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, also makes weighty decisions about the only four-year degree-granting institution in the state. He has been on the 12-person board since 2009.
As a land-grant university in a state where energy is relatively booming, UW is well-funded compared with other public universities.
The university is coming off a period of rapid construction.
“I almost don’t go to a meeting where they’re not either putting a shovel in the ground to start a building or cutting the ribbon on a building,” Mead said. “It’s been a transformation.”
However, state budget cuts will affect the university over the next couple of years, most notably in a reduction of the school’s faculty and staff.
Mead’s brother, Gov. Matt Mead, has recommended that university operating funds be cut by 6 percent starting this summer, which so far means the elimination of 42 nonacademic staff positions and attrition of 12 faculty members.
President Tom Buchanan also in September announced his retirement from the university, effective this summer.
The school is going through a time of change — in budget and in leadership — and Brad Mead is right there with it.
On a cold, cloudy Tuesday afternoon in January, Mead waited at Jackson Hole Aviation for a University of Wyoming plane to touch down. The Beechcraft King Air 200 was coming to take him to a board of trustees meeting in Laramie.
Although Mead has been a pilot for 35 years, he doesn’t fly when the weather is iffy. Riding instead of piloting saves him the seven-hour drive across the state and gives him extra time to read before the meeting.
He spends about 10 hours before board meetings getting up to speed on agenda items, he said.
“It involves a lot of material,” he said. “You have to prepare for meetings pretty intensively.”
Mead, a graduate of the University of Wyoming law school, asked Gov. Dave Freudenthal to appoint him to the board of trustees in 2009.
As a trustee, Mead is responsible for oversight of the university: approving the budget, maintaining academic and institutional integrity, and planning.
Mead feels a responsibility to offer residents quality education.
“The statistics about the earning power of people who have a college degree versus people who only have a high school degree are compelling,” he said. “While there’ll always be a need for vocation training, more and more jobs are not going to be available for people who don’t have a higher education of some form or another. In a small state like Wyoming, we have the luxury of being able to provide the resources that make a first-class education available to almost any kid who graduates from high school and wants it. We as a state and the taxpayers of the state have done ... the most important job we can for them by giving them an education.”
In a blazer, black cowboy boots and a Wyoming Whiskey belt buckle, Mead grabbed his briefcase and boarded the turboprop with a brown and gold — UW colors — interior. He was off to Laramie.
Not University of Laramie
Mead’s connection to the university runs deep. His grandparents met there. His mother attended. His brother, too. Mead met his wife and law partner, Kate, while they were in law school there.
“I think that we’re typical of a lot of Wyoming families,” Mead said.
When Gov. Freudenthal appointed Mead to the board of trustees, Mead said, he “called me and said, ‘I want you to focus on making sure the University of Wyoming is something more than just a place to meet your spouse.’”
The day after Mead arrived in Laramie in January, he went to a women’s basketball game with some of his fellow trustees.
In business casual attire, the educational leaders stuck out in the sea of brown and gold in the Arena-Auditorium. Mead chatted with a future Cowgirl in front of him as he cheered the UW team on to a victory against the Fresno State Bulldogs.
Sports, like the basketball game, show the importance of the university in the state, he said.
“If you go to any athletic event you see people in the stands come from all corners of the state,” he said. “That’s the only time they see each other. It’s like a reunion every weekend. … It’s not the university of Laramie, it’s the University of Wyoming.”
During Mead’s tenure, the board of trustees has worked to develop the university’s presence in every corner of Wyoming, he said.
“We encourage outreach across the state,” he said. “We facilitate coordination with the community colleges. The board has supported “Saturday Universities” here. We try to make sure it encompasses the whole state in one fashion or another.”
Basketball game to boardroom
Within 12 hours of the final buzzer at the Arena-Auditorium, Mead sat down for two days of meetings.
In a subcommittee meeting for research and academics, trustees discussed innovations in the School of Energy Resources. They listened to a presentation on strategic planning for the College of Engineering and Applied Science to create niche study areas, entice students to the school, fuel the demand of the job market and keep up with technological advances in robotics.
“Are you ready to have drones drive your airplane?” University Provost and Vice President Myron B. Allen asked Mead, jokingly.
“I’m going to be like Kim Jong-il,” Mead said. “Trains only.”
In the committee of the whole meeting, trustees heard more about the school’s family residency program and budget cuts affecting faculty and staff.
The biggest responsibility the board has is the selection and hiring of the university’s president, Mead said.
The trustees decided to search for Buchanan’s replacement in private, which sparked a lawsuit from The Associated Press and other news organizations. They pushed to make the process public. A judge ruled last month that the names of finalists must be made public. But the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill Friday that allows the search for UW and state community college presidents to be closed to the public.
The board is in the throes of its presidential search process right now, Mead said.
“That’s been a very time-consuming process,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great applicants, and vetting them has taken a lot of time.”
Mead is in favor of keeping the applicants’ names secret to get the highest number and best quality of prospective presidents.
“We had 88 candidates,” he said. “The same exact search firm that has been helping us has been working for Florida State, and that’s not a confidential process. They have to disclose the names, and they got less than 20. Our list included sitting presidents and provosts at significant institutions. Theirs did not. …
“I can understand people’s interest in knowing, but it’s the board’s ultimate responsibility, and it was our view, and I agree with it, that it’s more important for us to get the very best person. That’s our job. And this was the best way to do it. That’s why we’re doing it this way.”
Buchanan became president of the university in 2005 after a public outcry when finalists were disclosed and he was not among them. He was added to the list, other contenders dropped out, and he was named president.
Next to governor, president of UW is the most important job in the state, Mead said. He hopes the trustees will select a new president sometime this month.
Not the only controversy
UW has endured two other high-profile controversies in the past few years while Mead has been on the board: The university was forced to allow former Weather Underground member William Ayers to speak in 2010 after it initially blocked his presentation, citing security concerns.
Critics also lambasted Buchanan for caving to political pressures and removing a campus sculpture called Carbon Sink following complaints from a mining executive and a state lawmaker.
Mead, who at the time was against having Ayers speak at the university, said that ordeal was a mistake on the university’s part. The incident happened shortly after he became a trustee.
“Ostensibly he was there to talk about education,” Mead said. “My view was, and still is, that the real reason he was asked was exactly because of his past with the Weather Underground. To me, it would be like asking Kim Kardashian to come and talk about physics. The reason people would go is not because she particularly knows anything about it, and I don’t think he knows particularly anything about [education].”
However, after Ayers was invited it was a bad idea to uninvite him, Mead said. If the university had just let Ayers talk, he said, it would have been less of an ordeal.
Mead learned from that experience. By the time the Carbon Sink hullabaloo came around last year, he knew better than to get involved.
“The board still had the Ayers thing in its mind,” Mead said. “We weren’t asked to do anything or weigh in. Had we been asked I think we would have said, ‘Ignore it.’”
It’s a “slippery slope,” Mead said, “to start dictating what kind of art is acceptable.” The nature of the university is such that people are going to be exposed to new ideas and new points of view, he said.
“There is no way you can do that without having some ideas or some points of view being disagreeable to some people and agreeable to others,” he said.
That’s something he has taken to heart, especially in the search for the next president. He was part of the committee that wrote the search profile.
“It says specifically that one of the challenges and jobs of the university president is to maintain academic independence,” Mead said.
“I didn’t read everybody’s mind, but I bet the experience in the past four or five years contributed to that being a part [of the profile].”
Pressure does arise from the university’s funding sources: taxpayers, politicians and industry.
“There’s this tension,” he said, “and that’s why we describe it as a challenge. … You have to be able to go there on Monday and say, ‘We know you don’t like this but we don’t care,’ but then go back there on Tuesday and say, ‘We need $15 million for this new research place.’ And that’s a job.”
In the remaining two years of his term on the board, Mead wants to see a solid replacement for Buchanan leading the institution, salary increases for professors and tuition increases for students.
He’s for tuition increases so students “have some skin in the game” for their own education, he said.
There are 150 universities that grant doctorates, and Wyoming is 150th in cost, he said.
“It’s too inexpensive to go to the University of Wyoming,” he said. “I’m fine being 150th, but we ought to at least be able to see the rest of the pack in the distance.”
Also, because UW faculty and staff earn 12 percent less than their peers at other land-grant colleges, some of the best have been recruited away.
“It’s a bad investment to pay and train a researcher for long enough he gains international recognition then have him get hired away,” he said. “We have and will continue to try to bring salaries to parity with what their contemporaries are making in other institutions.”
Salaries are one thing Mead lobbies his brother about, he said.
“He’s not particularly interested in my views on anything else,” Mead said.
When Mead’s term is up in 2015, he may not be reappointed. If his brother remains governor, he can’t appoint him due to nepotism rules. Although politics runs in the family, Mead is not interested in running for office, he said.
“I’ll miss it for sure,” he said. “Since I was a student I thought it would be a cool job, and it is,” he said. “It’s the best job in the state.”