One day in 1979, the University of Wyoming offered a job to Tom Buchanan.
From simple beginnings as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography to a driving force during one of the university’s most transformational eras, Buchanan has enjoyed a remarkable career at the state’s only four-year institution of higher education, including the past eight years as its 23rd president. He will retire this summer. It’s been an unexpected journey for the 61-year-old Buchanan, who earned his master’s degree from UW in 1975 and yearned to return to the high plains of Wyoming after completing his Ph.D. at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“By coming to join the faculty, I was coming home,” says Buchanan. “Unlike a lot of folks who take their first job at an institution simply because the job is available, for me, I was coming back to a place I had fallen in love with as a student. This is where I wanted to be.”
Before taking over UW’s top leadership position on July 1, 2005, Buchanan rose through the faculty ranks to full professor and held various administrative positions including department head, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and associate vice president and vice president for academic affairs.
As president, Buchanan has overseen UW’s continuing rise from a regional university to a national player, particularly in energy research and the computational sciences, and served as the catalyst for a nearly $700 million building boom that includes new facilities for Information Technology, the College of Business, Visual Arts and the School of Energy Resources.
He just never envisioned any of it when he accepted that entry-level job nearly 35 years ago.
In one of his final interviews before retirement, Buchanan sat down with UWYO magazine inside his Old Main office to reflect on his presidency and look ahead to his next chapter in life:
Your accomplishments as president are many. Let’s start with the unprecedented construction boom that has transformed this campus. Why was it important for UW to upgrade its facilities, and how will these new buildings help drive the future of the university?
It really had been many years since there had been a real significant investment in buildings, facilities and infrastructure at UW. I think my predecessor, Phil Dubois, began some
of that, and I followed him at a time when the state economy was healthy, when there was good support for the university and when the opportunity was there to build out a vision that we had been creating through our strategic planning efforts. We pursued the dream we had developed with the faculty, the staff, the students and others.
The buildings are important, clearly. So are the people who work and learn inside them. How do you feel this university’s faculty and student population has grown during your term as president?
Buildings are great. But I have said, and others have said, as well, what’s really important is what occurs inside those facilities. The buildings provide an environment for learning, and many of our buildings now provide a better environment for learning than our students had in the past. They also serve as a magnet for recruiting students who are considering where they want to pursue their education. They serve to attract great faculty who are juggling competing offers and trying to determine where they want to spend their time. They are also an indication, at a public university, of the level of investment and support from the state.
The facilities deliver a powerful message. But it is the faculty and the students that create the educational experience. Our student growth has been solid and incremental over the last 10 years. Our attendance is as high as it has ever been, even at a time when the state population has been stable. Our numbers are going up, but the number of high school graduates in Wyoming has remained constant. That means we are, in part, picking up a higher percentage of high school graduates coming out of Wyoming’s schools. It also means that we are an attractive, a very attractive, option for high school graduates up and down the Colorado Front Range, where we have seen a lot of our non-resident growth.
I think we’ve seen good, manageable growth—and not dramatic growth that’s hard to accommodate—that puts us on a great trajectory as a university. Along with
the facilities, even though it’s harder to see, we have grown in both the number of faculty and, certainly, in the quality of our faculty. I think we have a stronger faculty today than we have ever had here. And, when you cut to the chase, at the heart of any great university is great faculty and great students.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)- Wyoming Supercomputing Center, which opened last fall in Cheyenne, is certainly among the university’s greatest victories during your presidency. How did this transformational partnership between UW and NCAR take root, and how will this center bolster UW’s burgeoning research enterprise?
Our partnership with NCAR is proof positive that we are playing in the big leagues, that we are competitive with the other public universities up and down the I-25 corridor. And those are all good universities.
The supercomputing facility is an example of government, higher education and the private sector working together. It is a best-case example of what can be accomplished when you can pull those parties together. It will serve—it already has—to attract researchers, scientists and faculty to the University of Wyoming from around the globe. It is now, and it will in the future, continue to be a magnet for great faculty who are interested in the computational sciences. That’s an emerging field with a broad reach across many disciplines. We have, now, better than 30 faculty members with expertise in the computational sciences on our campus. Our institutional demand for use of this facility is strong, and it’s growing all the time. For a faculty member to have access to this kind of computational power is an extraordinary career changer. It’s not just going to help us develop the best imaginable computational faculty here on our campus, it’s going to create links all over the world with other computational scientists at other universities who don’t have the opportunities we have here.
The creation of the School of Energy Resources was another critical achievement during your presidential term. Why did you believe so strongly in the creation of such a school, and what do you see in the SER’s future?
It almost goes without saying that energy resources in this state are important. The University of Wyoming had a history of excellence in geology and geophysics and in some of the engineering sciences and in different components of energy, energy resources and natural resources. But they were pockets and, sometimes, isolated pockets of excellence. What the School of the Energy Resources really did was take our existing strengths and use them as a foundation to build one cohesive focus that does a better job of connecting the university with the state. When the state of Wyoming is strong and the state of Wyoming prospers, so, too, does the university.
To do this right, like NCAR, we were going to need to build stronger connections between the university, state government and private industry. And industry has stepped forward in a wonderful and even aggressive fashion to support our efforts. That’s not by accident. I think it’s by the concerted efforts of folks here on campus, the support from the governor and the Legislature and the opportunity that we all see to help each other grow and prosper.
You took a lead role, early in your presidency, to strengthen UW’s relationship with Wyoming’s community colleges. Why was that a priority, and how much stronger today is the university’s bond with our statewide partners?
There was an era—and I’ve been here long enough to remember it—when I think the relationship between the university and the community colleges was strained. My intention, and the intention of the folks here on campus, was to turn that around. We’re not in competition with the community colleges; we share a common mission. When they prosper, we prosper. And vice versa. The community colleges provide us with hundreds of transfer students every year. They are our lifeblood, if you will, other than entering freshmen. And they come to us very, very well prepared.
Instead of looking at how we differ, I think we’ve tried to look at what we share and how we can cooperate to help each other. We’ve got a $30 million facility going in at Casper College that’s half theirs and half ours, and it’s built on the recognition that when higher education is strengthened in Wyoming, we’re both doing our jobs. Casper College is coming out ahead, and UW is coming out ahead at the same time. We’ve just expanded our facilities up in Sheridan, adjacent to Sheridan College. We’ve got a great, strong partnership there. We’re working hard to develop strong relations with Gillette College. We’ve got great programmatic relations in Rock Springs. We worked with Central Wyoming College on the building of the Intertribal Education and Community Center. We’re talking about agricultural initiatives with Eastern Wyoming in Torrington. And we’re in the planning stages for shared facilities with LCCC, over the hill in Cheyenne. In fact, not only are we talking about a stronger presence at LCCC, we’ve got a group working on a vision for a facility on the UW campus for LCCC.
UW has a presence on every community college campus in Wyoming. There is no reason that I can see why it wouldn’t be good for us to have a strong community college presence on our campus. We’re all in this together.
How pivotal has the support of the state of Wyoming, including governors Dave Freudenthal and Matt Mead during your presidency, and the men and women of the Legislature, been to the university’s development?
It’s unprecedented. I’ve been here under a variety of governors, and I would say that all of the governors, not only the two I have served under, have had a great commitment to higher education and a great commitment to the state’s only public university. I think the fact that we’re not just the flagship, that we’re the whole fleet, is a real advantage for us. And I think it will continue to be a great advantage to us.
It also comes with the responsibility that we recognize how big the state of Wyoming is. That means we’ve got to reach out. Not all of the higher education that UW delivers is here in Laramie. It is all over the state. That is certainly part of the foundation of our relationship with the community colleges. We have to work together if we’re going to get the educational services to the people who deserve and want them, no matter where they live in Wyoming.
I spent the better part of my tenure as president working with Gov. Freudenthal, who was just an extraordinary supporter of the university and higher education. I don’t think Gov. Mead has lost a step. He has picked up where Gov. Freudenthal left off. We have great relations, not only with the statewide elected officials, but we’ve also worked hard to build credibility and solid relationships with the Legislature.
And, in the final analysis, it’s the combination of support from the governor and the Legislature that’s necessary for the success of the university.
What does retirement hold for you and your wife, Jacque?
(Laughs) I’m going to sleep in.
That’s a good start! What else? Are you planning a big trip?
We’ll take this next year and just relax. We’re going to spend the year out of Laramie. We’re going to do some traveling and make some decisions about what we want to do going forward. I want to take some time to think about that. Starting in August, we’re going to spend nine months up in Canada, in British Columbia on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. We rented a small house up there. We’ll spend two semesters up there. I’ll pursue some of my woodworking interests, and we’ll enjoy an area that we’ve been vacationing in for a number of years. We’ll make some decisions there about what comes next.
It’s a beautiful setting. It’s a couple blocks from the ocean and surrounded by mountains. It’ll be a change for us, having spent 35 winters in Laramie. I don’t know how well I’m going to adapt to the gray and the wet; it’s going to be different. Both Jacque and I, we’re hooked on the mountains, and, I’m going to say, the northwest corner of North America.
And, lastly, what words would you like to leave with the people of this university and this state?
Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a great ride.