In less than a month, outgoing University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols will become the interim president of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. The current president of Black Hills State, Tom Jackson, announced two weeks ago he’s taking a job at a school in California.
UW’s board of trustees announced in March that Nichols wouldn’t be offered a new contract, but her schedule didn’t start slowing down until after spring semester ended.
While Nichols and UW’s incoming interim president, Neil Theobald, have done some transitional work via email in recent weeks, that work didn’t really begin “in earnest” until today, Nichols said.
Theobald was on a week-long vacation when UW announced May 20 that he’d replace Nichols.
Then Nichols herself was on vacation last week, so this is the first week the two have been on campus together since Theobald was tapped to be president. Theobald is UW’s vice president for administration and finance. He previously was the president of Temple University in Philadelphia.
Before her term as president ends, Nichols said she’ll work to finish UW’s 2020 fiscal budget, which the trustees are set to approve at their June 12 meeting.
The university also needs to soon prepare a list of funding requests to Gov. Mark Gordon for the 2021-2022 biennium.
Those requests need to be sent to Gordon in July. In May, UW’s division heads presented tens of millions of funding requests to the trustees. Now it’s Theobald, not Nichols, who has the responsibility of whittling those requests down to a realistic request for the Legislature. Nichols said work on that budget “doesn’t make any sense at all for me to carry.”
“I’m not going to do a thing with it,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s something Neil has got to do. He’ll be the one putting it together and he’ll be the one in front of (the Joint Appropriations Committee) defending it.”
On Tuesday, Nichols discussed her final weeks in Wyoming with the Laramie Boomerang and explained her decision to take the job at Black Hills State University. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Laramie Boomerang: How did this opportunity at Black Hills State come about?
Laurie Nichols: It happened very quickly. It’s only been discussed for a couple of weeks. When (South Dakota Board of Regents CEO) Paul Beran found out that Tom Jackson was considering stepping down, I think Paul went to the regents and had a conversation about who could be an interim. My name came up and then Paul reached out to me. It’s all happened in the period of two or two-and-a-half weeks. I think part of the reason it could happen very quickly is because I spent 22 years in higher education there and they know me well, so I’m sort of a proven entity. They followed my career here in Wyoming and knew what happened to me. And they knew that I was most likely free to consider this opportunity.
Boomerang: When Paul called, were you immediately interested?
Nichols: I was. I really was. I didn’t know about Tom Jackson stepping down at the time he called me. So when he first called me, I was surprised and then I said ‘Yeah let’s talk about it.’ There were a few little logistical things that we had to figure out, because I’m a retiree of the South Dakota public retirement system. So there were a few retirement things to work out, but they all worked out fine.
Boomerang: I think a lot of people in your position, who have a job they really like and then suddenly they find out they don’t have that job anymore, might want a break to recoup — like when Al Gore lost the 2000 election and then grew a beard and went into hiding. Even though the idea of you becoming a faculty member at UW was surprising, I thought it also might make sense if you wanted a break and to assess for a year what you want to do with the rest of your career. But you apparently don’t need that break. Why are you ready to keep going?
Nichols: I think part of the reason I’m ready to keep going is that I was never ready to end here. I think it’s different if you bring your own career down by your own will, and then it’s sort of a mental shift where you get yourself ready to phase out of being president. But you well know that’s not my situation and that’s not what happened to me. Have I come to grips with what happened? Absolutely. I really am honestly quite OK with it now. But was I totally ready to step out of a leadership role? I don’t think I ever was. So when this (Black Hills State) opportunity came up, I thought it would be great. What a great transition time for me to be able to go into an interim position like this and spend the next 12- to 13-months doing this. I really do enjoy being a president.
Boomerang: I haven’t been to Spearfish in a few years, but I remember it being a very nice place. Would you be interested in being a candidate for that position on a permanent basis?
Nichols: No, and I told them that right away. That was part of our first conversation. They gave me the option to be a candidate, and I told them no. And I said that because I really feel like you have a totally different search when the interim is an active candidate. You wouldn’t believe how much it impacts the search, but it does dramatically. And I don’t think that’s the right thing for them and I don’t know if it would’ve been the right thing for me either. I just want to go in and be a really great interim without the strings attached of knowing I’m a candidate. It changes your mindset.
Boomerang: It becomes a probation period.
Nichols: It does, and I didn’t want them to have to deal with that either. I wanted them to be able to have a very, very competitive national search and to generate a really robust pool of candidates, and I think they have the opportunity to do that with me not being a candidate.
Boomerang: Are you and (husband) Tim (Nichols) ultimately interested or willing to leave the Mountain West as other opportunities come up?
Nichols: No. We like it here. We’re only going to consider things in the Mountain West. I spent almost all my career in this region. I just know myself well enough to know that I’m probably not a great fit for Mississippi or Florida or other places in the U.S. It’s probably just not me.
Boomerang: What’s the last month or two entailed as you work to transition out of this presidency?
Nichols: Through graduation, which was May 18, it was full steam ahead and very few adjustments. My schedule was more than full. I had tons of activities and meetings and the normal process of getting ready for board meetings. But then once we got through commencement and the May board meeting, now for the last six weeks, it really has changed. Now, it’s much less about business as normal, which for me typically is planning the next thing and the next thing after that. Typically I’d already be getting ready for fall semester right now. But it’s really not about that anymore at all. It’s about finishing up a few lingering things that I know I can finish. An example of that is getting the (fiscal year 2020) budget approved. I’ll continue to own that because I’ve done all the work up to this point. With fall semester, there’s a lot of work that gets stepped up in June for that, but I really won’t do any of that. That’s really transitional now.
Boomerang: Neil has significant presidential experience. This transition isn’t like the situation where someone leaving the Oval Office leaves a letter to the next guy about ‘how to be a president.’ Neil doesn’t need that. He’s already been a university president, but what sort of advice or help does he need to be a university president in Wyoming?
Nichols: Probably none. I’m not going to give him a lot of that because I don’t really think Neil needs it. My list of things to discuss with him is really just about much more specific about things that might come up in the next year and I want him to know about. Many of these things are less public and less apparent to people, but I think it’s really important because I want to get as much in front of him as possible so there’s less surprises down the road.
Boomerang: What will your final two weeks be like here? How do you say goodbye to people?
Nichols: I’ve done quite a bit of that already. It’s kind of ongoing. My second-to-last week, I plan to be out on the road. I’ll be in Casper and Sheridan, and I’m thinking about Gillette too. On campus, probably much of my work in the last two weeks with just be with Neil. And a little bit with (Chief of Staff) Dan (Maxey). I don’t think there will be a need to meet with a lot of other people other than to say goodbye. And I don’t like to do that a lot, because I get very sentimental about it. I try not to make a big production about it. I’ll just tell people thanks and then fade into the woodwork.
Boomerang: Will you watch this campus with an interested eye or would that be hard to do?
Nichols: I would love to say no and that I’ll be too busy, and there will be a bit of truth to that. But I’m going to be really honest, human nature is such that I still have a lot of feelings for this place. I have made a ton of friends. I have just made so many friends in Wyoming and on campus that I can’t say I won’t watch anything. When I left being provost at South Dakota State, I remember my first six months here — when I was really busy and just up to my eyeballs trying to get my arms around this job — and I still had a lot of emails and contact from South Dakota State. So I can’t imagine it will be much different. I want this place to do really well. When you put so much time and effort into a place, you’re hoping you’ll leave it a little bit better than when you found it, you don’t want it to go backwards. I certainly don’t.
Boomerang: Are there any things that have been your brainchild here that you really hope will still be priority for the administration?
Nichols: If there’s been one baby that I’m really passionate about, it’s just been all of our work with the Wind River (Indian Reservation) and Native Americans on campus and in the state. There have been a lot of people who’ve worked on it, so I don’t want to take the credit for it solely, but we’ve made a lot of progress in three years. The university was not in a very good position with Wind River when I came. We’ve just worked and worked on it, and I know we’re in a much stronger position right now. I just hope there’s the commitment to stay with it, because relationships take tender loving care, and you can’t just say ‘we’re good’ and then walk away.
Boomerang: What do you think the dividends of that relationship will be?
Nichols: Long-term, I hope Native American people that call Wyoming their home obtain the higher education that they want. I hope that we’re accessible to them and that we recruit them and retain them and graduate them so they’re achieving their educational goals.
Boomerang: What from your experience here will be useful at Black Hills State?
Nichols: The richness of this experience and all that I’ve learned, and I’ve learned a lot, all of that will go with me. I do think I leave here a bit wiser and with more knowledge about running a university at the highest level. I certainly hope I can apply that immediately when I go there. I’ve learned some things the hard way and I hope I can apply all of it to being a more effective president than when I first came here.