After more than six months, it’s no clearer today than it was in March why the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees decided not to renew the contract of President Laurie Nichols. It’s becoming more obvious, however, that providing no explanation is not acceptable.
The trustees and their legal counsel have stopped inquiries at the door with the explanation that they simply cannot divulge details because they are behind the sacred curtain of personnel matters. Well, it’s as true today as it was six months ago that pretending we can end the conversation there will not suffice for the public and the journalists who make inquiries on their behalf.
Unfortunately, left with no explanation, speculation is inevitable. But anyone reading this who thinks this is out of line should rethink that position. There has been troubling instability in the top executive office for too long, and moving forward in this way doesn’t set Wyoming up for anything but continued dysfunction.
There could be a feeling among some decision makers that revealing the thinking behind Nichols’ ousting will be worse than the backlash from keeping it obscured. If that’s the reasoning, it’s severely flawed, if nothing else, because of the public’s stake in the success of the university. If we were talking about a private institution, this kind of secrecy might be ill advised, but it wouldn’t necessarily be improper. However, this is a public entity, and as such UW has a responsibility of transparency because it’s our tax dollars at work. Make no mistake, too, that the university’s failures or successes have significant impacts on Wyoming’s economic outcomes.
And if one thinks this position is blowing things out of proportion, the consequences of the coming months’ decision in this matter are apparently on Gov. Mark Gordon’s mind, as well. The public saw his strongly-worded letter advising the trustees to be transparent and thorough in their presidential search, even advising against selecting an “obvious” candidate without more consideration. Gordon certainly is not wrong that the public’s trust in university leadership is in peril.
A renewed call for an explanation here is important now because it’s becoming blatantly obvious there is concrete reasoning that the board felt UW must move on from Nichols. Just look at the circumstances that have been revealed not by the trustees’ own admissions, but by journalists’ reporting. Recent reporting from the Casper Star Tribune and WyoFile showed the trustees quietly paid $8,550 to Employment Matters LLC Flynn Investigations Group to interview at least 14 people in the weeks and days before the board notified Nichols on March 15 that she wouldn’t continue as president. Board members flew to Arizona in apparent urgency to inform Nichols of the decision at a total cost of $9,100.
If the investigation into Nichols found no cause to remove her, but the trustees decided to go in a different direction regardless, an explanation for the investigation is still owed. That scenario would mean the trustees spent almost $20,000 to not find a smoking gun that would provide reasoning to not renew Nichols’ contract and then dismissed Nichols regardless. And if Nichols is not guilty of something that the trustees considered serious wrong-doing, why did they fly to Arizona to talk to Nichols while she was on vacation?
Let’s say there is a smoking gun that would lead anyone in the trustees’ position to say Nichols could not continue as president; some reason that would justify all this controversy, all this hassle. Well, it is the duty of those entrusted with the operation of public institutions to tell us that is the case.
The fact is that no matter what the fallout from coming clean in this matter, there’s no way it could be worse than trying to hold up this charade that we’ve been told all we need to know and should just trust that we’ll land on stable ground. If there is some kind of wrong-doing, the trustees should trust the advice constantly being offered by transparency advocates, including in the media, that public institutions are only harmed by secrets. It undermines public trust and will make things worse when the truth comes to light.
It’s also not serving the presidential search to have this sort of controversy swirling around UW. What sort of top candidate would want to come to the university when it seems apparent he or she could be dismissed out of the blue and not know why?. And how will the next top executive function worrying that he or she is constantly under threat of being ousted without really knowing what is expected? Again, this only piles on complications in an already unstable environment.
It feels as though the thinking may be that if officials hold the dam long enough against the tide of inquiry that it will eventually subside. A new president will be selected, trustees will breathe a sigh of relief and we’ll forget this all happened. We would have to classify that as wishful thinking. Think of the fact that reporters are still investigating and writing stories, almost seven months later. It’s not like there’s no other news to cover in Wyoming right now. A more likely scenario is that speculation will build, giving birth to all sorts of theories until finally some kind of truth is eked out by the media. All that will harm the university. And that harm will be primarily because of this cult of secrecy.
The best way to avoid any furtherance of harm to our beloved university is to provide a full and thorough explanation now. There may be a period of turmoil following that explanation, and there could be unfortunate consequences for some. But the only way to move on with some degree of closure is to know what happened and why, and to process how we can all do better in the future. These questions just aren’t going away.