U Wyoming fight over energy law leads to resignations of dean, university president

Wyoming is a center for energy and natural resources, but a debate regarding how much of the curriculum at the University of Wyoming College of Law should be devoted to the subject has led to the resignation of the dean. It also contibuted to the resignation of the university president. 

Stephen Easton stepped down as dean of the law school at the end of October, disgruntled with the university administration's handling of recent decision-making.

“Important decisions affecting the College of Law have been made without meaningful consultation with me or others on the faculty,” Easton said in an email distributed throughout the law school. “If the concerns that have led to this lack of consultation are with me, my resignation will remove this impediment and clear the way for the effective faculty governance of the College of Law that the accreditation standards require. I cannot continue to serve as your dean while critical decisions are made about the College of Law without the input of the administration and faculty of the College.”

Easton’s resignation came after Bob Sternberg, President of the University of Wyoming, created a new advisory task force, aimed at considering how the law school serves “the state with regard to energy, natural resources, water and environmental law.”

Easton was not the only resignation under Sternberg's six-month term. Five administrators and two other deans also resigned amid changes instigated by Sternberg. Sternberg then resigned on Nov. 13, after he said it was clear he no longer had the full support of the board of trustees. 

"It (University of Wyoming) might not be the best fit for me as president," Sternberg said in his resignation letter. 

It is unclear whether the task force will move forward. 

Easton had expressed concerns about focusing too heavily on one area of law, and said he believed it was “crucial for the College of Law to continue to offer a comprehensive legal education, not an education that is overly focused in one particular area of law.”

He added that offering a wide array of legal studies helps better prepare students for practice.

“We cannot allow emphasis on one area of the law to detract from our duty to prepare great attorneys for the citizens of Wyoming,” he said. “As such, it is incumbent for the College of Law to provide a comprehensive legal education.”

Students also expressed concern in an open letter to Sternberg published in the Laramie Boomerang. The letter criticized the lack of transparency to students regarding the advisory task force and the focus on energy and natural resource law.

“While the undersigned students have received no notification of the purposes of the ‘task force,’ we can read between the lines,” the letter stated.

The letter was submitted by Michael Fitzgerald, but credits more than 30 students who supported its submission.

“The message is clear: The President of the University of Wyoming has decided the College of Law will focus more on energy and natural resources law,” the letter continued.  “Had you consulted with the students at the College of Law, you would have learned that this plan is misguided. Many energy and natural resources courses are already offered. In fact, energy and natural resources make up one-fourth of the courses at the College of Law.”

Sternberg had emphasized that the task force would have an advisory role.

“The task force’s purpose will be to offer ideas on how the College of Law can be the best it can be,” Sternberg said in a press release. “It will then be up to the law school and the university to implement those recommendations that we believe fit with the needs of the university and the state.”

Easton criticized the university administration’s governance of the law school, stating that he believed the dean and the faculty “must govern the College of Law if it is to continue to enjoy the accreditation that allows the College of Law to maintain its reputation, allows its graduates to take the bar exam in Wyoming and in every other state and allows its alumni to take advantage of opportunities available only to graduates of ABA-accredited law schools.”

Easton had been dean of the law school since 2009. He will continue to serve as a faculty member at the law school.

Jacquelyn Bridgeman has been appointed the interim dean until the selection process for a permanent dean has been completed. Bridgeman has served as an associate dean in the University of Wyoming College of Law since 2010.