Almost a year after we learned that former University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols would not continue in that position in 2019, the public finally received at least part of the explanation it deserved this week.
It was announced in March that the university’s board of trustees decided not to renew Nichols’s contract when it expired at the end of its three-year term in March. Nichols, as far as we could tell, was relatively popular — or at least not notably unpopular — despite her having come in to her office just in time to make a $42 million cut to UW’s budget.
Since that time, the university’s board of trustees has stayed quiet as to why the decision to move on from Nichols was made. The search for details led to public records requests being filed by the Casper Star Tribune, WyoFile and later the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Boomerang. When the university blocked the release of the requested records, the media organizations asked the courts to compel their release.
For months, speculation based on scraps of details was all people really had to go on in trying to figure out why Nichols was dismissed. It looked in early 2019 that Nichols was likely to get an extension when her three-year contract expired in March. Then records showed the trustees flew to Arizona where Nichols was on vacation in the days leading up to the announcement. There were indications that an investigation into Nichols had taken place leading up to the decision to move on from her as president. Through it all, Nichols maintained she was not given a reason why she was dismissed, never herself publicly speculating as to why.
The records released on Tuesday morning revealed that an investigation into Nichols did take place on behalf of the board, though it was considered preliminary and only provided a verbal report to the trustees. It seemed there were complaints made against Nichols, alleging she had acted abusively toward university and UW Foundation employees, as well as a student on one occasion. The preliminary investigation reported finding a pattern of behavior consistent with the complaints. It was also revealed that before the complaints had prompted the investigation, the trustees had planned on granting Nichols a nearly 14% raise and three-year contract extension.
Taking that information, the trustees apparently decided moving forward with Nichols was untenable. According to information in the records, it was made clear to Nichols’ representatives that no explanation would be provided as to why her contract was not renewed as she expected. As such, she would never get a chance to respond to the complaints before being dismissed.
Many suspected the trustees simply wanted to put the matter behind them and hoped the public would move on. Based on the board president’s own words, it seems that’s the case.
WyoFile reported on Wednesday that trustees president Dave True said he hoped the media and public would redirect their attention toward the future, maintaining it’s a “personal matter.” True seems to be saying that we should leave this to the trustees and that the public and the media on its behalf need not interfere.
Well, we must respectfully disagree. Contrarily, it would be civically irresponsible of concerned members of the public to move on and it would be a dereliction of duty on the part of media organizations to not continue to push to bring more information to light.
It is critical for the public to understand what is going on. The University of Wyoming is a public institution and the only doctoral institution in the state of Wyoming. Not only do we have the public’s tax dollars invested here, we have the economic future of our state in the balance.
There’s plenty of indication that the public should at this very moment be scrutinizing the trustees’ decision as it relates to the president’s office. Without rehashing all the details, it’s clear there’s a lack of stability when it comes to finding a top administrator to steer the university. So after the Bob Sternberg debacle, and now this situation with Nichols that’s plagued by secretive dealings and lacking transparency, we’re just supposed to let the trustees take the wheel of another search, no questions asked and expect it will all turn out fine? That’s just unrealistic.
The simple fact is that the records released on Tuesday don’t put anything to rest. If there had been a smoking gun that would make any reasonable person step back and say, “Well, Nichols really was out of line there, and anyone in the trustees’ shoes would have done the same thing,” then that would be one thing.
The conduct attributed to Nichols in the complaints and investigation is out-of-line for a university president. And it is possible to see a scenario where Nichols’ behavior and leadership detrimental to morale. The trustees could have been in the understandable position of having more to lose by keeping Nichols than by letting her go.
No one would defend the actions described in the complaints, and it surely would have warranted a response from the board. If Nichols been confronted with the information and responded in a way that made it appear there could be no constructive way to move forward, we can see how there would need to be a break. But if there was any potential to salvage the relationship, that should have been explored.
There’s no way Nichols is the first president at UW to have a dust up with employees or even students. One can’t help but wonder if all this would have happened as it did had Nichols been a man. It would have been a no-brainer for the trustees to take complaints of that nature to Nichols and say those matters needed to be addressed. Anyone in that position deserves a chance to hear the accusations and respond. But would they have reacted the same way had the same people complained about a male president? We can never know, but it’s reasonable to ponder the question.
UW Foundation President Ben Blalock was recently at the center of a lawsuit where it was alleged Blalock and another Foundation employee Mary Ivanoff had used extremely offensive language and insinuations in a professional setting. UW would go to court to defend Blalock and Ivanoff in that matter, and Blalock is still the foundation’s head. Now in the case of the university’s president, complaints of her losing her temper take us from contract renewal and raise to dismissal in a matter of weeks. Then the university uses taxpayer dollars to block the release of records related to the president’s dismissal in court, only to relinquish the documents when the court found there was no good reason to hold them back from the public.
It should be noted, however, that’s absolutely not our point to say bad management practices should be tolerated by anyone, regardless of gender. Equality means it shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone.
The bottom line is that even aside from debating whether letting Nichols go was the right decision, this was handled poorly by the trustees. It was a mistake to not provide any reasoning for the dismissal, it was wrong to block the records requested from being released and it continues to be backwards to believe the public should have no interest in pursuing the truth. You can throw blame for the continued controversy wherever you want, but there’s a good chance the only reason we’re still talking about this today is because of the secrecy on the part of the trustees. It all is a huge unforced error.
Looking toward the immediate future, all this could have consequences for the task True identified as his top priority in 2020: hiring a new president. It’s easy to imagine candidates for this job looking at the situation and not wanting anything to do with UW. We can hope for the best, but we’ll never know what we really may have lost in this whole mess.
We understand the desire of the trustees to move on from where we are rather than spending all of our time looking backward to assign blame. We want to look to the future as well.
But there’s an apparent lack of accountability with the trustees today that makes us wary about the future at UW. We would hope this experience would lead the trustees in the direction of greater transparency and openness, but that doesn’t seem too likely. It’s good then that no one is just letting this go. If greater openness and transparency still does not manifest, then maybe the best way to achieve the accountability the public demands is by shaking up the makeup of the board.