After months of back and forth, Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken recently ruled that the University of Wyoming must turn over, within 30 days, numerous records related to former UW President Laurie Nichols to the Laramie Boomerang, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyofile.
The public likely won’t see those records for several more months, however, as a university representative told the Boomerang on Jan. 3 that UW plans to appeal the ruling. But if upheld by the Wyoming Supreme Court, Kricken’s ruling could give the public a glimpse into the reasons the university’s board of trustees opted not to renew Nichols’s contract after negotiating one in 2019.
Kricken made several determinations in her ruling, but a point worth highlighting was her finding that the public’s compelling interest in knowing the employment details of the president of the only university in the state of Wyoming and how public funds are being used is important enough to override the university’s stated concerns with releasing the materials.
No one knows at this stage what those records will reveal should the Supreme Court uphold the ruling. Whatever is learned, it looks bad for UW. If it’s something trivial where administrators or trustees were trying to save face, then it won’t make sense why all these games — which have no doubt come at considerable cost to the public — had to proceed. If there’s something seriously concerning revealed, the public should rightfully be upset that the university wasn’t forthcoming from the start.
It’s worth echoing the sentiment of Casper Star Tribune publisher Dale Bohren who said there’s really no doubt the trustees want what’s best for the university and the state — we simply disagree with how things have played out and how best to handle these situations.
The media organizations that took part in the request, and certainly everyone reading this, also want what’s best for UW and Wyoming. That’s why it was appropriate for those organizations to take the actions that led to Kricken’s decision, if nothing else, to make a point. The point being that news organizations are not just going to let this slide by and allow the impediments that were placed in front of the public’s right to know stand.
Some of the furor has died down since it was revealed in March that Nichols would not continue in her role as president, and there’s plenty to distract us. It’s an election year, the Wyoming Legislature convenes Feb. 10, the prospect of international conflict lingers and plenty more is sucking up air in the news environment. The news organizations involved in this request, however, are making a statement that they will not forget about this matter and will not rest on it until there are some clear explanations. So while this specific incident could fade away and become less of a priority for the public at times, the media are doggedly watching and waiting to bring back to the public’s attention what these records will show about how UW is being run.
Sadly, the likely damage has already been done. How should Wyoming expect potential candidates to look at the situation as the presidential search continues? It’s difficult to say for certain from where we sit now, but this legal situation is certainly muddying the water. Who knows what potential candidates may not pursue the president position because they’re dubious about what’s going on here. Clearing the air could do a great deal to make a public show that we’re moving on as soon as possible. Once all the information is out there, the university and state can begin to look forward rather than continuing to stare in the rearview mirror.
With all that in mind, it’s worth suggesting that the board of trustees could show good faith with the community and state if UW would step back from appealing Kricken’s decision. It’s worth pointing out that if the trustees were keeping the details secret out of fear of a liability suit by Nichols for making that information public, the judge’s decision would take them off the hook. Foregoing the appeal would be a great step in showing the public that the trustees want what’s best for the university and Wyoming. Whatever has been done is done and whatever was said has been said. Let’s take a hard look at it now and decide what can be learned rather than drag things out farther into 2020.