Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Casper Star-Tribune Editorial: Two Separate Issues

Star-Tribune Editorial Board

It appears as if the University of Wyoming's S.H. Knight Geological Museum has a future, after all.

But it may not be enough to quell criticism by supporters of the museum who have railed against university officials all summer.

The museum was closed July 1, one of the victims of a 10 percent budget cut at the institution. It lost its entire $80,000 annual budget, including veteran curator Brent Breithaupt's position and two part-time staff members.

After the initial uproar, UW made the misstep of announcing it would reopen the museum part-time with the hiring of a security guard. Supporters viewed it as a meaningless and, in many ways, insulting gesture.

Instead, the facility reopened Aug. 24 with a graduate assistant available to guide visitors. But to some of those who view Breithaupt as synonymous with the museum, nothing short of his reinstatement could ever correct the error of his abrupt dismissal after nearly 30 years on the job.

The latest news on the museum front, however, is encouraging. Longtime UW professor Brainerd Mears and his wife, Anne, started an endowment for the museum with a $570,000 donation. With state matching funds approved by the Legislature to encourage private donations, the endowment will total $1.14 million. It will support general operations, purchase new articles and pay for essential travel expenses.

The fund will also be used to redesign the museum on the Laramie campus. UW Foundation President Ben Blalock said the Mears' gift will be used to ignite major fundraising for the museum.

This is a step in the right direction. For at least a time, the university wasn't at all interested in encouraging private donations to the museum. A June offer by a member of an energy industry association to raise funds for the museum received this e-mail response from UW Provost Myron Allen: "I ... appreciate your willingness to consider soliciting donations that would keep the Geology Museum open. However, I hope you'll consider directing any fundraising initiatives toward other measures -- preferably those that support UW's degree-granting departments.

"We won't hire people into permanent positions using temporary funding, and even if permanent funds became available every dean and department head in the institution can name positions that rank more highly than those lost in the Geology Museum."

Between June and September, that attitude appears to have changed, no doubt in large part to the protests of museum supporters. Some suggested alumni withhold donations to the university until the museum is reopened full-time and Breithaupt is given his position back. That doesn't seem likely to happen.

UW appears to have treated Breithaupt shabbily. He was on a business trip to Switzerland when he learned -- from his family, not the university -- that the museum was closing and his position was one of 45 at UW to be terminated. In the eyes of many people, UW officials may never atone for that mistake. The loss of Breithaupt's expertise is immense.

But the Geological Museum is bigger than any one person, and the new endowment will give it a new life. We hope supporters will be persuaded to set aside their anger at the institution and encourage donations so its existence is never again placed in jeopardy.

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